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Things That Have Interested Me

What good is sitting alone in your room?

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
18 November 2006

In New York last week I was given a preview of Glitter and Doom, a remarkable show that -- surprisingly -- is the first to be devoted purely to German portraits from the 1920s and early 30s, those unsparing works by such artists as George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Christian Schad. The curator who showed me round, Sabine Rewald, said it had been extremely difficult to persuade some of the (largely German) museums to make the necessary loans. It had been like asking for the Mona Lisa.

One reason for this difficulty is that this kind of art holds a special place in public esteem. Consciously rebarbative as it often is, it evokes the Weimar Republic and the pre-Nazi era. The painters were exceedingly conscious of their moment in history, and some of them were prophets of Germany's downfall. (Otto Dix painted Dresden in flames, years before that city was destroyed.)

The portraits are also in rather short supply. There was a limit to the number of people who were prepared to sit for Otto Dix, in the expectation of ending up looking monstrous or crazy. And some of those who did so, in a gesture of support to an artist who was a friend, did not hang the resultant portrait in their homes. The upshot is that, although these paintings include great iconic images representing their period, they are rather rarer than one would expect, and not many museums outside the German world own them. There are none from Britain in the show, for instance, unless among anonymous loans.

The sitters are, generally speaking, not the most famous Germans of their day, most of whom would have preferred to sit for more conventional artists. An exception is the young Bertolt Brecht, whose portrait by Rudolph Schlichter, in black leather collarless jacket with black leather tie, is in the catalogue (but not the show). Brecht is shown in front of a Steyr car, which he had been given by the manufacturers as a gift after writing a poem about Steyr cars. Brecht shocked Elias Canetti by bragging that he wrote for money, and this portrait seems to express something of his youthful immoralism.

The other famous portrait that eluded all attempts to lure it across the Atlantic (from the Centre Pompidou) is Otto Dix's study of the journalist Sylvia von Harden. This, to many, sums up Weimar, and that was Dix's intention. The sitter has boyish cropped hair and a monocle. Her pose is inelegant: she rests her elbow on the back of her chair, and one of her stockings is coming adrift. Her hands are enormous. Her buck teeth are brown. She is smoking at a table in the corner of a café, with a cocktail, cigarettes and matches in front of her. She seems to be taking part in some fierce intellectual dispute. She stands for the lesbian misfit of the day.

A part of what we feel about images like this is inevitably: that person would not last long in Hitler's Germany. And it is true that van Harden, who had been married twice, before eking out a living as a journalist and poet, left Germany in the 30s for Switzerland and Italy, before fetching up in England. She died in Croxley Green in 1963. A couple of years before, when the Centre Pompidou bought Dix's portrait of her from the artist (presumably he had never succeeded in selling a work so singular), she was induced to travel to Paris and be photographed, plus monocle, in front of this record of her young self.

Apart from these two works, practically everything you can think of is in the Met show, which continues till February 19. The most extraordinary of these works of the New Objectivity, or Neue Sachlichkeit, is Christian Schad's double portrait called Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove. Agosta was born with an upside-down ribcage, and his torso is shown in the nude. He worked in a fair as a freak-show, and also, like the Elephant Man, was studied by medical students. His striking deformity made him attractive to women, whose advances he would reject, being happily married. Rasha the Black Dove is a Madagascan woman whose act, in the same fairground, was to twirl a boa constrictor around her body.

Schad, unlike so many of his contemporaries, was unpolitical, and he does not appear to be saying anything in this painting, unless it is that people like this (who live on the margins) deserve to have their portraits painted with respect. Schad exhibits none of the sexual loathing and hysteria that is par for the course elsewhere. He was a hedonist. He liked being around the demimonde, and illustrated a book about Berlin's notorious bars.

Whereas Grosz, a child of Dada, based his visual language on graffiti he had collected from the toilet and the street, Schad worked with reference to Raphael. The style was elegant and cool to a degree. But the subject matter was quite another thing. Two Girls shows not the raddled old floozies who became the cliché of Berlin brothel scenes, but two clearly beautiful young women masturbating. This they are doing, it appears, without any reference to each other (though they are on the same bed) and without any overt reference to the viewer.

The catalogue says, a little comically in my view, that were the main figure to be less self-involved, were she to look the viewer in the eye, "she would beckon us in an attempt to excite, and the picture would descend into the realm of gross pornography". But I think Schad was pretty excited by his subject, and wanted to persuade us, in his elegant way, to join in the excitement. If this makes the result grossly pornographic, I'm sorry to say I couldn't care less.

I asked Sabine Rewald why there are so few paintings by Schad, whether the bulk was destroyed. She said no, the opposite was the case. Nothing was destroyed, because nobody knew about Schad. During the Weimar period he sold only four paintings; and though he went on working, the kinds of things he produced in later years were of no great interest. This is so typical of the German school in this period: nearly everyone who went into exile went off. Their moment came and went. The exception to this rule is Max Beckmann, who never went off.

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