'Glitter and Doom': Art to Make You Wince

In the first world war, Germany suffered 5 million dead. When the war was over, the country was left with 2 million orphans, a million widows and a million invalids. In the waning days of 1918, it underwent a revolution in which the kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland. Soon thereafter, the victorious Allies imposed a staggering reparations burden on Germany. Unemployment skyrocketed, and inflation reached such insane proportions that paper currency made better firewood than money. German cities became, simultaneously, pits of poverty, starvation and disease and dens of drug-fueled high life. The painter Max Beckmann, who'd been flung out of the Army and the war in 1915 by a nervous breakdown at the front, said, "We must take part in the whole misery that is to come." He meant that he and his fellow artists mustn't avoid the grotesque subject matter that history had placed in front of them. They must paint it with all the realism—emotional and psychological, as well as physical—at their command.

The exhibition "Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s," on view through Feb. 19 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, displays 100 works—40 paintings and 60 drawings—by Beckmann and his peers. They're all portraits of one kind or another, but except in a few instances, they disembowel rather than flatter their subjects. The amazing thing is that in so many cases artistic savagery arises more out of empathy than anger. Otto Dix's tall, blood-red picture, "The Dancer Anita Berber" (1925) looks like the portrait of a septuagenarian plastic-surgery queen caked in makeup and trying to disguise an arthritic hip with a sexy pose. Berber—whom the exhibition's catalog describes as a "notorious ... dancer and nude performer, an actress, a seductress of men and women, and a cocaine and opium addict"—was only 26 when Dix painted her. Three years later, she died of the effects of cold-turkey withdrawal. The lesser-known artist Rudolph Schlichter's "Margot" portrays a rather plain, ordinary-looking woman, dressed demurely in a white blouse and black skirt, standing in a dreary urban courtyard. But she's got a cigarette dangling from one hand, the other on her hip, and a "What's it to ya, buster?" expression on her face. Turns out she's a prostitute, taking a break between customers.

Anger, however, does rear its snarling head. And how. Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that the drawings of the dedicated communist (until he later toured the Soviet Union) George Grosz "seemed to us not satires but realist reportage: we knew those types, they were all around us." Types? Everybody who'd led Germany into ruin and everybody who'd given succor to everybody who did: politicians and priests, military officers and money managers, policemen and whores. In Grosz's bestiary, they're bloated and decaying, with fat, stupid heads and pinched, hypocritical features. Even his skeletal, crippled victims—beggars, wounded soldiers, et al—look somehow blameworthy for their fatal naiveté in falling for the patriotic claptrap that got them into their plights. Grosz's "The Eclipse of the Sun" (1926) and Dix's "The Skat Players" (1920)—both complicated, semicubist compositions—are searing statements of, if not truth to power, at least rancor to corruption. "We are approaching a new human ideal," sarcastically wrote one critic at the time, "one based on the white collar criminal and on idiocy."

Max Beckmann and Christian Schad were just as embittered as Dix and Grosz by the sad state of the Weimar Republic, with Germany reeling from loss in one great war and—unbeknownst to all but a prescient few—about to launch itself on a trajectory toward an even worse defeat in another. But these two painters are cooler customers. Beckmann, whose favorite pastime was to dress up in a tux, nurse a couple of drinks all evening at a classy hotel bar, and just watch people, painted himself a lot. But his self-portraits—perhaps the best ever outside of Rembrandt and van Gogh—with their weird backlighting and daring use of black black as a color, contain as much seething cynicism as anything else in the exhibition. Schad, some of whose clinically gynecological pictures can't be reproduced in a family publication, is a gimlet-eyed surgeon, operating on decadence. His "Count St. Genois d'Anneaucourt" (1927) depicts a past-his-prime aristocrat, most likely of the layabout variety, posing Bogart-like in evening dress between his female counterpart and a semi-convincing transvestite. (If you see the show, try to guess which is which.)

German artists, of course, enjoyed a long tradition of tell-it-like-it-is portraiture, from Lucas Cranach to Albrecht Dürer, from Matthias Grünewald to Hans Holbein. When, in the moral morass of the 1920s, they needed to express their outrage, they returned to it. In the years between 1927 and 1931, about 20 significant portrait exhibitions were mounted in major German cities. Besides, the catalog notes, "the naked bodies of prostitutes did not lend themselves to dada deconstructions." The era of "doom and glitter" ended, however, with Hitler's ascent to power in 1933. Artists such as those in this exhibition were fired from their teaching jobs and saw their work banned and even destroyed. The ones who could fled the country.

One reason that the Met's exhibition is so powerful—and it is powerful—is that the art is so good. There's not a trace of "my kid could have done that" modernism in this show. These guys could really draw and paint. But another reason that it's such a grabber for an American audience is that the feeling is almost inescapable that the collective vision in these works of art could apply—at least in part—to us. Granted, our wealthy, comfy U.S.A. in 2006 is a far cry from a gutted, prostrate Germany 80 years ago. But we do have wounded soldiers coming home from a war whose rationale has proved to be at least as dubious as that for Germany's participation in World War I. We've got people getting stupefyingly wealthy off our war. We've got hookers—of both sexes—all over the place. And we've got preachers and priests caught in their company. What would Dix, Beckmann, Grosz and company be inspired to paint if they were among us today? It boggles the mind to imagine.