It contains some of the cruelest art you will ever see. Rape, murder, death in its many variants and all the horrors of war. Blatant sexuality — straight, gay and transgender in all their forms, minus even a tiny trace of eroticism. And over it all, a towering sense of impending doom. For this is the art that underlay the tragically destined German Weimar Republic, which in 1933 became the first nation to fall to Nazi brutality.
It’s the New Objectivity show at LACMA. And it is as scary as any Wes Craven movie.
In 1925, the "New Objectivity" movement debuted in Mannheim, Germany with a show that was an attempt to break away from the expressionism of the pre-WWI period. You could almost better translate the German original title, "Neue Sachlichkeit," as “The Way Things are Now.”
To the 21st century, the difference between New Objectivity and late expressionism isn’t as obvious as it was 90 years ago. Some of the top creators are the same in both movements — Otto Dix, Max Beckman, Georg Grosz — and there are stylistic similarities. But something huge had happened since expressionism sprouted early in the last century: the Germans has lost the worst war in human history and its aftermath was defeat, economic collapse and general public despair. The streets were full of mendicant mutilated war veterans and women driven to prostitution.
This was followed by a few years of sudden, disruptive prosperity that affected relatively few and left the majority poor. Then came the dark passage of the Great Depression. The "light" at the end of that tunnel turned out to be the fires of the Third Reich. It’s a world we think that we know from the musical “Cabaret.” But the LACMA show tells us how little we really knew.
While expressionism could offer grim fantasy (like Kokoschka’s 1908 ”Murder, the Salvation of Woman”), New Objectivity was ghastly reality — it portrayed sex murders, rapists and the profiteers, crooked industrialists and senior army officers that were planning to lead Germany once more into war. Otto Dix’s WWI sketches of skulls crawling with worms, stormtroopers attacking in ghostly gas masks and the endless piles of the dead and dying are among the powerful anti-war works ever rendered.
"I told myself," Dix said, "that life is not colorful at all. It is much darker, quieter in its tonality, much simpler. I wanted to depict things as they really are."
(Otto Dix, Sex Murder, 1922. Karsch/Gallerie Nierendorf/(c)ARS)
Postwar, Dix drew the smiling whore with the syphilitic facial lesions alongside the impoverished veteran with half his face shot away. Again and again, there are the terrible sexual images: The woman stabbed to death in her bed, the rape in progress; in the New Objectivity, only terrible things happen in bed. The straight and LGBT parties are the kind of parties where the morning after begins the night before. It was a time and place when everything — and everyone — was for sale.
Even the portraits exude foreboding. H.M. Davringhausen's smooth-faced profiteer poses over his ledger in a skyscraper office whose walls are a satanic red. In his self-portrait, clad in a tux, Max Beckman glowers over the entire LACMA gallery like a stone-faced ringmaster. In George Grosz’s “Eclipse of the Sun,” chancellor-to-be Paul Hindenburg poses doltishly in a surrealistically disarrayed office, surrounded by headless advisors, as if anticipating his moment when he turns his nation over to Hitler.
Around 1930, the show material makes a strange transition to chilly, unpopulated paintings and photos of factories, street scenes, industrial machines, mighty ships, amazingly still landscapes. It is as though New Objectivity was averting its collective eyes from the Hitler catastrophe that violently swept it away and cast its surviving artists on faraway shores where many of them adopted new styles, new philosophies.
The show misses a few beats — the contemporary and equally bitter poetry and drama of Brecht, the acrid music of Weill, Eisner and Schrecker could be floating through the galleries. But curator Stephanie Barron had the sense to run a generous helping of New Objectivity-era film in an adjoining gallery. I sat through a reel of G.W. Pabst’s 1929 “Pandora’s Box,’’ starring the astonishing Louise Brooks, who invented the bobbed hairdo. She was the only gorgeous thing in the entire LACMA show. Actually, by then, she looked like the most gorgeous thing in the world.
New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933, is at LACMA's BCAM, Level 2, through Jan. 18, 2016.