Andrew Lambirth

Barbarity tinged with splendour

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Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s

Sabine Rewald

Yale University Press, pp. 292, £

If you missed the exhibition of Glitter and Doom which ended last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, this handsome hardback catalogue is a good armchair substitute. It contains three very readable essays — by no means typical of exhibition catalogues — and a wealth of colour illustrations. Sabine Rewald, the show’s curator, sets the art historical scene in her introduction, followed by an excellent piece by the cultural critic Ian Buruma, entitled ‘Faces of the Weimar Republic’. The third contribution is again art historical: a brief history of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Germany by Matthias Eberle. Neue Sachlichkeit translates as ‘New Objectivity’, and it is the portraits of this tendency which form the subject of the book.

There were two aspects of Neue Sachlichkeit painting, one which veered towards classicism, and the other which favoured a biting realism and was dubbed ‘Verism’, and it is the ferocious vision of the Verists which claims our attention here. The avant-garde painters of 1920s Berlin, Dusseldorf and Dresden had mostly fought in the war (though the elegant mannerist Christian Schad sat out the hostilities in Switzerland), and they came home sickened by their experiences. Abstraction did not seem humanly involved enough to deal with their disillusion, but then neither was a still-life or landscape painting the proper vehicle for such anger. The portrait was more suitable, for all that passion could be chanelled through visual affronts to the human appearance. The Verists produced a kind of freak show of types, often choosing their sitters from the margins of society. Strangely, the professional classes were also popular subjects — lawyers, doctors, art dealers — though they can scarcely have relished the manner of their depiction. For the objective glare in which sitters were presented showed up and exaggerated every slight defect in a confrontational, not to say hostile, light.

Otto Dix (1891-1969) was a master of this brand of distortion and deliberate ugliness. In his portraits, the lawyer and art patron Dr Fritz Glaser was re-cast as the Wandering Jew, the art dealer Alfred Flechtheim as a simian Shylock. Flechtheim is painted with low brow, thick lips and hooded eyes, grossly caricatured but not entirely without affection. For a more compassionate portrayal we must turn to George Grosz’s painting of the hunchback writer Max Herrmann-Neisse, a masterpiece of self-possession and dignity. Unfortunately, many of Grosz’s portraits were lost or destroyed, and it is Dix’s savagely uncomfortable vision which dominates this study, in more than 50 paintings and drawings. I love the story of him running after the monocled lesbian journalist Sylvia von Harden in 1926, saying that he must paint her because she represented their era. Art as sociology? The resulting portrait, one of Dix’s finest from his Berlin period, is celebrated: von Harden is seated at a café table with a cocktail and a packet of red-tipped cigarettes, dressed in red and black checks, her hair bobbed and sporting the famous monocle. She died at Croxley Green, near Watford, in 1963. Nothing she wrote is remembered today, but her portrait survives.

Berlin in the 1920s is regarded as the epitome of glamour, decadence, world- liness — the last word in modernity. Rewald states provocatively: ‘It was perhaps the most creative period in the history of 20th-century culture’. But as the Weimar jounalist Hans Sahl recalled: ‘It was a time of great misery, with legless war veterans riding the sidewalks on rolling planks, with a nation that seemed to consist of nothing but beggars, whores, invalids and fat-necked speculators.’ The New Objectivity offered up a mirror to this chaos, reflecting the grotesqueries in a frozen realism based on the 16th-century masters Holbein and Cranach. Artists of the stature of Grosz, Dix or Beckmann could adapt this style for their own ends. The work of lesser-known figures, such as Rudolf Schlichter, Karl Hubbuch or Georg Scholz, has a more literal quality. Schlichter, for example, painted with sympathy the soberly dressed prostitute Margot, at a time when German hookers were frequently depicted with loathing, as erotic fascination shaded sharply into disgust, fed by unquenchable cynicism. This book offers a compelling survey of barbarity only faintly tinged with splendour.