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The Current Interest in German War-Related Art

by Britany Salsbury

otto dixAsk most people in the United States about the visual culture relating to World War I and II and the time between, and you’ll get answers that range from the iconic images of Rosie the Riveter (think an emphatic “We can do it!”) and Uncle Sam. Although these images are probably the most easily recallable examples of American war-related art, such unabashed displays of patriotism are met with considerably more skepticism contemporarily than they would have been in the America of the earlier half of the twentieth century, which had never lost a fight. This may explain why, if you were to ask the same people to come up with equally iconic images for the current war, they’d draw a blank; although fewer people than perhaps ever before support the war on terror, there are relatively few—if any—renowned artists consistently creating art that deals exclusively and directly with the experience of war.

It may be this sort of cynicism—the kind a country develops while fighting a losing war—which has sparked a current interest in the art produced between World War I and II in Germany. In November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its blockbuster exhibition Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, containing a wide range of works from Germany’s Weimar era. Several months later, in January, Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art opened their display of German art from between the wars entitled From the Trenches to the Street: Art from Germany, 1910s-1920s.

Both shows focused on a set of incredibly volatile years in Germany; while many—artists included—entered World War I with at least some degree of patriotic enthusiasm, their zeal soon faded as they fought a losing battle at the cost of millions of lives. The ensuing Weimar Republic fell, as Germany found itself in a state of financial desperation with war reparations gradually rendering the currency useless—in many cases, people found it more useful to burn money to heat their homes than to attempt to spend it. Many of the since-canonized artists of the time—most notably George Grosz and Otto Dix—had directly experienced trench warfare and its aftermath, using these experiences as a starting point from which to critically examine the experience of war.

Glitter and Doom, which closed February 19, featured portraits almost exclusively; this traditionally objective genre was often implemented by artists during the Weimar era to create disarmingly realistic depictions of the current political structure and thus contemporary attitudes toward war. “The situation in Germany between the wars was much worse than ours is today, but the dark side of Weimar still beguiles our culture,” said New York magazine critic Mark Stevens of the exhibition. “Imagine what Dix or Grosz would have made of the simian Bush, the feral Rumsfeld, the gloating bullfrog Cheney.” Those represented range from war widows to prostitutes to disfigured soldiers, each, in their own way, victims of a failed government.

The Block’s exhibition was similar in content and overlapped slightly due to the inclusion of artists such as Dix, but focused mainly on works from Midwestern collections and contained works by several less-familiar artists. “Artists whose work addressed World War I in a powerful way was the primary criterion for selecting works of art,” the museum’s Associate Curator, Corinne Granof, who organized From the Trenches to the Street, told F Newsmagazine. A lithograph by Conrad Felixmüller which was included in the show, entitled Soldier in the Insane Asylum, expressionistically and anxiously represents a soldier in a cell-like room, which presumably reflects his post-war psychological state. Such an example clearly demonstrates the psychic response to what has widely been termed history’s goriest war. In contrast with more abstracted images such as Felixmüller’s, however, the exhibition also includes disturbingly graphic realist drawings by Otto Dix, studies of the brutality and death to which the artist was exposed during his time on the warfront.

If there are, in fact, similarities between Germany’s Weimar era and the political state of the United States today, such connections are not mentioned officially by either museum. “While there may be parallels,” Granof told F News, “[From the Trenches to the Street] deals specifically with the World War I and post-war period in Germany.” She also commented that while the artists included in the exhibition were generally critical of war, she hoped viewers would draw their own conclusions.

Critics and viewers alike have widely done so, and although the chronological proximity of these two exhibitions is coincidental, the fact that viewers are interested in this sort of leftist response to war likely has little to do with fate. “The timing of the exhibition is really excellent,” one visitor to From the Trenches to the Street told reporter Matt Radler of the Daily Northwestern. “We’re seeing the horror of war today…[but] we really don’t see the artists protest today in the same way.” This lack of visibility is likely tied to the disconnection between the contemporary art scene and the general public; in many cases even the museum-going are unfamiliar with current art world trends and emerging artists. Additionally, the heavy regulation of what images of war are allowed to be seen creates a popularly consumed representation of the realities of war that is incomplete at best.

Such inaccuracies and omissions are perhaps why those who, until recently, had never heard of Weimar have shown interest in Glitter and Doom and From the Trenches to the Street. Although disheartening political similarities may exist between early twentieth century Germany and the United States today, the ways in which art functioned are worlds apart. At a time when the visual context of war is so limited, it is intriguing to consider a time when lives were unavoidably saturated with the experience of it, and when the same people who fought in the war were those creating images of it for popular consumption.

In his review of Glitter and Doom for Newsweek, critic Peter Plagens quoted one Weimar-era writer, who said of the political situation of the time: “We are approaching a new human ideal, one based on the white-collar criminal and on idiocy.” Such commentary could seamlessly be printed on the pages of a newspaper today. The sense of continuity evoked by the renewed interest in early twentieth century German culture is an effective reminder of the fact that, although it is easy to disregard the much-spoken-of tendency of history to repeat itself, there is much to be learned from the past.

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