Although often romanticized as the backdrop for erotic cabaret shows and sexual licentiousness, German cities of the 1920s were actually in the throes of rampant unemployment, hyperinflation, and social panic. After the initial patriotic fervor for—followed by the crippling devastation of—World War I, a group of artists known as the Verists questioned their own involvement in the atrocities and focused on the country's quickly changing social landscape and uncertain political future.
Forgoing new modes of abstraction, the artists found worthy subjects in urban denizens of all walks of life, from the war-wounded to the art dealer. With a stark rejection of idealization, the Verists' portraits captured the stark existence of a populace through an incisive and often satiric form of realism. Unlike the conservative painting styles popular at the time, the Verists' psychological portraits do not attempt to reproduce likenesses. Rather, with savage distortions of the face and the figure, the artist turns the sitter into an exaggerated type reflecting the extremes of a turbulent era: wealth and poverty, glamour and violence, decadence and banality.
People of vastly different backgrounds came together in the common pursuit of pleasure as Germany's traditional class structure and moral strictures collapsed. Christian Schad's portraits depict the modern individual caught between debauchery and ennui. In Count St. Genois d'Anneaucourt (1927), Schad places the jaded and aging Count between the cold profile of a mannish woman and the willowy figure of her rival, a transvestite.
Many of the artists suffered from the lingering trauma of the war, and their portraits convey a pervasive malaise. In Max Beckmann's Dance in Baden-Baden (1923), stylishly dressed couples go through the motions of living the high life, their expressions indifferent and weary. Even the artists themselves seem be to role-playing, as seen in Beckmann's forced pose as a bon vivant in Self-Portrait with Champagne Glass (1919).
Social criticism also took more pointedly political forms, when artists filled with anger and distrust satirized corrupt individuals in scathing portraits. George Grosz's The Pillars of Society (1926) mocks politicians, military men, and priests, who grit their teeth and puff their cheeks while violence and destruction loom in the background.
Although their subjects were purely contemporary, artists such as Otto Dix and Christian Schad were inspired by 16th-century German masters, such as Cranach, Dürer, Holbein, and Grünewald. Otto Dix adhered most closely to their painting techniques, while exploring the particular vices of the Weimar era. Dix sought out a brutal truth by looking unflinchingly at the most grotesque, violent, and debased aspects of society. Typical of his subject matter is The Salon I (1921), which portrays four elderly prostitutes in cheap finery that fails to hide their decrepitude. Dix's 1925 portrait of Anita Berber immortalizes the infamous dancer, nude performer, actress, seductress of men and women, and cocaine addict, who, in her brief career (1916–28), distilled the excesses, glamour, and misery of the Weimar Republic. With more than 50 works by Otto Dix, this exhibition will be the first major presentation of the artist's work in the United States.
With harsh candor and biting humor, the portraits in the exhibition dissect a Weimar demimonde of prostitutes and profiteers, war veterans and war widows, performers and poets. The Verists themselves were part of this shattered world, mingling in the crowd with former aristocrats, middle-class doctors, and businessmen. Their powerful images serve as mirrors to a glittering yet doomed society. With Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and the end of the Weimar Republic, artists lost their teaching positions, their work was banned, and many of them went into exile.
The exhibition is supported by The Isaacson-Draper Foundation.
Additional support is provided by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.