Neue Galerie’s “degenerate” art and Babylon Berlin

Georg Grosz, Eclipse of the Sun, 1926

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Neue Galerie’s compellingly incisive exhibition, titled “Eclipse of the Sun: Art of the Weimar Republic” and anchored by Georg Grosz’s 1926 painting Eclipse of the Sun, yields an ominously resonant tableau of a post-World War I Germany saturated with angst. Grosz’s busy, quizzical work depicts an aloof and corrupt Paul von Hindenburg, then president of Germany, in uniform and baring his teeth, his shaky democracy stalked by bloodless bankers, hovering economic strife, looming social and moral decadence, and militarists convinced they were “stabbed in the back” by gutless civilians who signed the armistice in 1918. Max Beckmann’s riveting Hell portfolio of lithographs, from 1918–19, chronicles the chaotic and distraught postwar Germany that Hindenburg seems to be overlooking. The aged and feckless president would appoint Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933.

Max Beckmann, Galleria Umberto, 1925.

If Grosz poses the question of Germany’s fate with Eclipse of the Sun, the mordant Otto Dix, ever scarred by the war, provides a prescient answer in his drawing The Skat Players, a study for a painting that features grotesquely crippled war veterans engaged in a doomed game of cards. Artists like Rudolf Schlichter (Woman With Tie) and Christian Schad (Two Girls) register the momentary social liberation of the “new woman” due to postwar liberalism in relatively benign, if tellingly passive, works. But the show’s overall tone is, inevitably, dystopian. In the more cynical eyes of Dix, by way of his paintings of prostitutes, or Otto Griebel, via The Naked Whore, the ingrained social order and escapist male hedonism in the face of political and economic discord are knocking Weimar women from their transient perch.

Otto Dix, The Skat Players, 1920.
Rudolf Schlichter, Woman with Tie, ca. 1923
Otto Griebel, The Naked Whore, 1923

Sky1’s brilliantly elliptical and atmospheric, neo-noir television series Babylon Berlin – set initially in 1929 and based on Volker Kutscher’s bestselling book series, somewhat reminiscent of The Wire – vivifies the plight of the Weimar woman in the character of Charlotte Ritter, played by the winsomely charismatic Liv Lisa Fries. By sheer force of aptitude and confidence, Ritter vaults from police typist to homicide investigator – extraordinary for a woman – but still has to work as a flapper and prostitute to make ends meet for herself and her destitute family. Her partner in crime-fighting – and at least notionally her lover – is Inspector Gereon Rath, a PTSD-addled war veteran and a morphine addict (Volker Bruch, suitably distressed).

Rath and Ritter uncover the rot of anti-Semitism and the converging rat-lines of communism and the traditional far right – foreshadowed in Grosz’s horrific 1919 painting Panorama (Down With Liebknecht) depicting the Spartacist uprising – that are disintegrating the Weimar Republic’s brittle casing and will soon yield Hitler’s ascendance. With the rise of Nazism came the condemnation of many Dadaist, expressionist, and “new objectivity” artists, including most of those featured in the Neue Galerie’s show, as “degenerate.” That those defiant artists got the last laugh, once considered a settled matter of history, has lately been thrown open to debate.

George Grosz, Panorama Down with Liebknecht, 1919.

Eclipse of the Sun: Art of the Weimar Republic,” curated by Janis Staggs, Director of Curatorial and Manager of Publications at the Neue Galerie. Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. Through September 2, 2019.

Babylon Berlin; created, written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Achim Von Borries and Henk Handloegten; broadcast on Sky 1 and Netflix.

Related posts:

The Great War and Modernism
Art and Film: War and art’s uneasy survival
Artists under duress: Max Beckmann
Nicole Eisenman and the triumph of painting

 

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