Filmmakers tip viewers off that something sinister is lurking with lighting and music. Dozens of pieces of art on display in an astounding exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) create that same eerie, somewhat sinister effect. Like the pictures at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, the works of art in the LACMA exhibit, New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933, may seem normal at first, but a close look shows the creepy underpinning of life and captures a sense of evil lurking in Germany in the brief interlude between World Wars.
Maybe it is hindsight. Viewers know bad things did happen. Maybe it is that happier pictures did not survive the Nazis or bombings? Maybe it is what the LACMA curator gathered and other museums loaned for this showing. Whatever, it is uncanny to walk from room to room looking at artworks that are so unsettling.
The New Objectivity exhibit is the first comprehensive show, at least in the U.S., to explore the artistic trends during the Weimar Republic. Organized in association with the Museo Correr in Venice, Italy, the LACMA exhibition includes approximately 200 paintings, photographs, drawings and prints by over 50 artists. Some of the key artists —Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann— are well known here. Others included, like Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Aenne Biermann, Carl Grossberg, Karl Völker and Georg Schrimpf, give a broader perspective of the major changes going on in the era.
For many artists, as well as residents, of the Weimar Republic, life after World War I was full of contradictions. There was great social and sexual freedom (think of the nightclubs in Cabaret and Bent) as well as rapid technological changes and urbanization. There were post-war shortages and, once the Great Depression started, crippling unemployment.
This resulted in a turn to realism, labeled in a 1925 Mannheim exhibition as Neue Sachlichkeit (or New Objectivity in English). The artists associated with this new realism were not unified by manifesto, but all shared a skepticism regarding the direction their country was taking that shows in their work. As exhibition curator Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator of Modern Art at LACMA, said, “Together, they created a collective portrait of a society in uneasy transition, in images that are as striking today as they were in their own time.”
The LACMA exhibit is divided into five sections:
- Life in Democracy and the Aftermath of the War is understandably one of the biggest areas. It examines cultural divides between Germany’s rising bourgeoisie and those who suffered most from the war, such as maimed veterans, the unemployed and prostitutes. This section has works like Beckmann’s Paris Society, which was commissioned by the German embassy in Paris, which shows a crowded room with little interaction and a depressive tone, and Dix’ To Beauty, which shows himself as a stiff businessman in a wool suit in a nightclub surrounded by people and a lot of detail. There are also headless bureaucrats in Grosz’ Eclipse of the Sun (1926); ruthless businessman, like Davringhausen’s The Profiteer (1920–21); and a number of artworks depicting sexual violence.
- The City and the Nature of Landscape looks at increasingly industrialized life. Arthur Köster’s St. Georgs-Garten Siedlung, Architekt Otto Haesler (1920s) show big buildings dwarfing human subjects and a dark presence (again, the evil lurking!).
- Still Life and Commodities features the still lives of the era, with cacti (exotic to them) and new objects finding their way into homes. An example of these new wonders is seen in Hans Finsler’s Electric Bulb with Parts of the Socket.
- Man and Machine looks at the dehumanizing effects of rapid industrialization with photos and other depictions of mass production objects and tools. Carl Grossberg is one artist featured here for his paintings of factories that seem like photos, such as in Paper Machine (1934).
- New Identities: Type and Portraiture shows rendered as social typecasts rather than idealized, individual subjects. The portraits are unflinching and even disturbing. One iconic image in this area is Max Beckmann’s Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927), which shows the artist in a smoking jacket staring brazenly at viewers. Another is the creepy, icy gaze seen in Kurt Günther’s Portrait of a Boy, one of several portraits of haunted looking children. As the Los Angeles Times put it, “These chilly youngsters, representatives of tomorrow’s promise, may have escaped from the Village of the Damned.”
The New Objectivity exhibit that shows artworks that capture and foreshadow the evil lurking in Weimar Germany will be at LACMA until January 18, 2016. The museum is located on Wilshire Boulevard, mid-city, next to the La Brea Tar Pits.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Preview visit to New Objectivity exhibit
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Los Angeles Times: A chilling portrait of Germany’s Weimar era emerges in ‘New Objectivity’ at LACMA
Photo of Max Beckmann’s Paris Society, courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and LACMA
Photo of Carl Grossberg’s The Paper Machine by Benjamin Hasenclever, Munich, courtesy of LACMA
Photo of Kurt Günther’s Portrait of a Boy, courtesy of Berlin/Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie/Art Resource, NY and LACMA