Art For Our Time:
at Galerie St. Etienne & MoMA
The stars must have aligned over New York City for a niche gallery and major museum to concurrently exhibit drawings and prints by German Expressionist artists, all taken from their extensive holdings. Galerie St. Etienne , a venue that specializes in Expressionism and self-taught art, planned its exhibition, Decadence & Decay: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, well in advance and not in connection with The Museum of Modern Art ’s German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse . The shows offered viewers two very different perspectives, but only at the gallery could art lovers walk away with a favorite–once they’d left some money behind.
Accompanied by a catalog primarily written by curator Starr Figura and heralding the digitalization of the museum’s 3,400 plus Expressionist works on paper , the exhibit at MoMA set out to define, illustrate and track the rise and fall of the movement in Germany and Austria from 1905 with the formation of the artists’ groups Die Brücke in Dresden and–several years later–Der Blaue Reiter in Munich, until the confiscation and destruction by the Nazis of hundreds of works of “degenerate art” in the late 1930s.
The Galerie St. Etienne showcased the work of three Weimar-era artists who did not identify strongly with any one group and whose most powerful images lean toward the left of the political spectrum. In Jane Kallir’s concise and informative essay accompanying the checklist, she distinguished between these “Verists,” with their uncompromising images of the underside of life, and the “Magic Realists” with their revival of Italian classicism, well suited for the Nazi propaganda to come. (See review of the Guggenheim’s Chaos and Classicism show .)
Expressionism, as originally conceived, emphasized “personal expression” and was “characterized by simplified or distorted forms and exaggerated color.”1 Prints–especially woodcuts–and other works on paper became the media of choice, allowing for spontaneity, experimentation and wider dissemination.
The (almost exclusively male) artists presented in both shows are celebrated for their development of printmaking as an artistic form in its own right, but Berlin-based Käthe Kollwitz  preceded them by over a decade with her series, A Weavers’ Rebellion (1894–98), soon following it with her Peasants’ War (1902–08).
Although the MOMA exhibit displayed a fair number of Kollwitz’s works, including all seven of the woodcuts that make up her poignant commentary War  (1921-22), the main text of the catalog fails to give her the same biographical treatment afforded other prominent artists. Readers will find only descriptions of her work and, oddly, a first mention of her (p. 29) by last name only, implying a prior reference where none exists.
The art of Die Brücke (The Bridge) members reflects their counter-cultural attitudes. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner seems to have been the de facto leader, attracting like-minded artists and their friends to his studio to celebrate chaos with decoration and dancing. Both there and at their favorite beach resorts they cavorted nude and sought to “bring art and life into harmony with each other.”2
The prime mover of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group, Vasily Kandinsky (mythic father of abstract painting), had a similar interest in the ethereal. Author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1913), Kandinsky and his cohorts, Franz Marc among them, revealed in their work a “fascination with themes of spiritual rebirth and cosmic conflict.”3
In Austria, two unaffiliated Viennese artists, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele , created images aimed at “the facade of complacency and conformity that dominated”4 the culture of their city. More inclined to compete than band together, they produced a far more unsettling brand of Expressionism. Hardly idealistic or other-worldly, their work confronts the viewer with overtly sexual and violent images, insisting on spotlighting the darker reaches of the human psyche.
Displayed in the first four galleries at the MoMA show, the pieces by Kokoschka and Schiele stand out among those of dancing nudes and idyllic nature blithely executed by their German contemporaries. The advent of World War I erased any such disparity among most of these artists. Forced to confront the uglier aspects of human nature, they responded in various ways. Many of them served in the military. Of those, none escaped physically or psychologically unharmed. Several were killed in action. A few committed suicide.
Stepping into the next room, one encountered a dramatic shift in subject matter that reflected this altered European landscape. Kirchner, that espouser of all things beautiful, produced a lithograph depicting a sex murder, an emerging theme at the time. In his Murderer  (1914), a black-suited man stands over a nude woman bleeding from a gaping wound in her neck from which blood trickles down to her crotch where it pools, then spreads to provide much of the color in the print.
Kirchner’s lithograph shared a wall with Night  (1914), a drypoint by Max Beckmann of what might be a murder in a brothel. A man’s body, still partially on the bed, slides onto the floor where a stream of blood runs from the back of his head. Nearby, an overturned nightstand spills objects onto the floor. Two women and a man look on with mild interest.
Moving along, viewers entered a gallery at the far end of which hung images of war’s brutal reality. Not since Francisco Goya inked his print series, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), has another artist captured the nightmare of armed conflict like Otto Dix  did in his series of etchings, Der Krieg (War) . As an artilleryman for the duration of the war, the artist learned first hand about the horrors and deprivations of trench warfare, relying on drawing to maintain some semblance of sanity. Years later he observed, “You have to have seen people in this untamed state to know anything about them.”5
MoMA mounted, salon style, all fifty prints of Der Krieg . In four uneven rows, the etchings depicted trench warfare in all its gory: Those still living fight amid corpses strewn across lunar landscapes. People lose their minds: a woman with a crazed look kneels over a dead baby; a boy with an ash-blackened head stares with wild eyes. Prostitutes stroll along streets and men seek relief from women they pay. Body parts hang on trees, and skull and limb bones accumulate in piles. At night, a man comes over the rim of a trench to stab its unsuspecting occupant in the chest. War cripples trudge along in a line, bringing to mind John Singer Sargent’s painting of mustard gas victims, Gassed  (1918). Broken bodies hang from a bombed-out building while in front of it a bloody-headed baby leans on the corpse of a woman. Drunks fight in a bar. A bright rising sun mocks two soldiers crawling on their hands and knees, leaving skeletons behind them. Three rigid legs of a gutted horse point skyward.
Several of Dix’s War prints also appeared at Galerie St. Etienne. These, displayed at eye level, afforded a more intimate viewing experience than was possible at the MoMA show. Also at the gallery were two drawings, Grenade Trench with Dead Men and Man Reading in Foxhole (both 1917). Sketched on site using the side of a black chalk crayon to create broad, dark marks, they bring the viewer into the trenches with Dix.
No stranger to war’s tragedies, Käthe Kollwitz directed her energies toward exposing the hidden casualties of war: the parents asked to offer up their children. Having lost her son early in the conflict (like many caught up in nationalistic fervor, he had quickly enlisted), she suffered acutely from his death. Her belief in the futility of war finds expression in her series, War , all seven of which appeared in the MoMA exhibit.
Exploiting the expressive power of black ink set against wide expanses of white paper, these woodcuts feature mothers attempting to protect children threatened by the demands of a war machine that would devour them. In The Parents , an elderly couple form a compact monumental unit; the father, one arm raised to cover his face with a gnarled hand, embraces his wife, who bends over to bury her head in the crook of his other arm. Their grief is palpable.
In another woodcut from War, The Widow II , Kollwitz places the viewer behind the thrown-back head of a foreshortened body of a woman holding a baby draped across her chest. Her eyes, in a face that appears upside down to the onlooker, suggest those of the living dead.
On a wall perpendicular to the one with Kollwitz’s woodcuts, MoMA displayed all eleven of Max Beckmann’s lithographs of war’s aftermath, straightforwardly titled Hell . Characteristic of much of this artist’s work, the prints overflow with chaotically jumbled figures who chat, orate, sing patriotic songs, go hungry and torture others. Breaking through their pictorial boundaries, many of these images demand deliberate and sustained focus for full comprehension, requiring more than casual viewing.
Another critic of post-war German society, George Grosz excelled at the equivalent of scathing political cartoons. At the Galerie St. Etienne, one found a generous selection of these works on paper.
In Saxon Miniatures, Grosz reveals his view of German manhood. By positioning figures from background to foreground, he suggests a kind of evolutionary timeline, beginning with a withered old man and moving forward with a military man, then a cleric, and ultimately, a Saxon tribesman armed with a club.
Grosz’s 1921 ink drawing, Let Those Swim Who Can–The Heavy May Sink , speaks to the deprivation suffered by the less fortunate members of post-war Germany. Grosz poignantly depicts a wrinkled man clad in slippers, jacket and slacks, with a cravat tied tightly around his neck. Leaning over to rest his skull-like head on one arm while gripping the cane that supports him with the other, the occupant of this small room containing little more than a bed and a couple of chairs looks to be dying from starvation.
In addition to many of Grosz’s works on paper, the MoMA show included two of his 1917 paintings, Metropolis  and Explosion . In both, predominant red tones, heightened by occasional blues and greens, heat up exploding urban views.
In the vertical Metropolis, floating men in suits hurry across the canvas while two bare-breasted women dressed in stockings are destined for a different kind of business. In the other painting, the eponymous explosion shatters glass, tumbles buildings and scatters lives, an apt metaphor for the hit taken by any society engaging in war.
Like much of the art in both shows, the eleven lithographs comprising Beckmann’s Trip to Berlin  (1922) highlighted the chasm between those who benefit from armed conflict and those who suffer because of it. In this series, shown in its entirety at MoMA, Beckmann juxtaposes The Theater Lobby  with Tavern , and in Striptease , unhappy, mostly-nude women attempt to entertain a well-dressed but inattentive audience. The Disillusioned  in formal wear sit around a table while The Beggars  in the street look for handouts.
Apotheosis, a 1919 woodcut by Dix bridges past with present in its elevation to godhood of a bare-breasted, corseted woman wearing black stockings and heeled boots. Spinning around her in a cubistic array, heads and appendages of men share the background with pieces of buildings. Dix seems to be addressing both the commodification of sex and the increasing pace of life brought on by industrialization and the growth of cities.
Flash forward. The mechanical morphs into the digital. Wars rage, sex sells, cement spreads, rich and poor collide in urban settings. One wonders how Grosz and Dix would react to 21st century life.
Kollwitz died in April 1945, just months before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fortunate to be spared witnessing the blood-hued dawn of the nuclear age. What images would she have created in response to such mass murder that might have moved viewers to better safeguard this precious gift of life?
1 Starr Figura, German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, 2011, 10.
2 Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig (1913), quoted in German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, 11.
3 Figura, 18.
4 Ibid, 90.
5 Quoted by Dietrich Schubert in Otto Dix, 2010, 37.
Decadence & Decay: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz
Galerie St. Etienne 
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019