Consider three pictures of women that express moods and attitudes of the time. In Margot, a painting by the German Rudolf Schlichter, the subject, a prostitute who modeled for the artist, wears a chopped, boyish haircut and a silky, slouchy waistcoat with transparent sleeves: she looks at us with insouciance, allure, and disdain, one arm akimbo, a cigarette dangled loosely from her hand. In an August Sander photo, the artist Helene Abelen, in slippers, gaucho pants, and a man’s shirt and necktie, is all mischievous, sardonic snarl: clenching a cigarette between her teeth, she’s about to strike a match, clearly relishing her incendiary presence. The journalist Sylvia von Harden, in Otto Dix’s portrait of her, sports a black-rimmed monocle; on her café table sit the maintenance foods of her time — cigarettes and a martini. Her dress is a rucked, baggy sheath and her hose is sagging, but she couldn’t care less.
The pictures were made in the 1920s, during the Weimar years, Germany’s first and short-lived democratic republic that took form after World War I and lasted until Hitler’s chancellorship in 1933. It was the worst and best of times. Germany was broke after the war and obliged by the Treaty of Versailles to pay 132 billion marks in reparations. Inflation was absurd: by 1923, a loaf of bread cost 200 billion marks. Yet there was a fresh, tingling edge to city life and its entertainments. Women, critical to factory work during the war, were more on public display; and there seemed to be many more of them, since two million German males died in combat. And many thousands of men who did survive bore horrid disfigurements and amputations. Costume, etiquette, and sexual self-presentation were tumbling, publicly and thrillingly, into ambiguous zones. Cross-dressing had a swaggering brashness; hetero women sharpened their sexiness with mannish looks; gay culture was more on display than ever, at least in Berlin and other centers.
The art that took all this, and much more, as a subject was called Neue Sachlichkeit, “New Objectivity,” the title of a 1923 exhibition that featured work reacting against what was perceived to be the nearly abstract subjectivity of Expressionism as practiced by Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, and others. Scholars have since broadened the designation and bickered over the types of art that qualify. They’ve devised taxonomies and identified strains: Verismo, realism in representing the human body in the industrial age; Magic Realism, representation that doesn’t answer to the norms of a shared reality; Neo-Classicism, a revival of the techniques and clarities of Renaissance painting applied to contemporary subjects. New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933, on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is an expansive sampling of the beautifully unpleasant, confrontational, socially alert art produced under the pressures of the Weimar Republic, including the three pictures of women that I started with.
The best of the lesser-known artists of the time was Christian Schad, born 1894 to an affluent family, whose work derived from classical models but was almost hyper-realistic and complicated by chillingly equivocal content. A super-fine, unbroken “skin” or invisible membrane seems stretched tight across his pictures, sealing figures and settings to a hyper-articulated armature. He destabilizes or subverts the self-contained, dignified presence of his figures. His Portrait of Dr. Haustein could be the portrait of a Renaissance prince, except that behind him looms a bulbous, E.T.-ish shadow with a large cranium, a cigarette between its tong-like fingers, a worm of smoke lingering on its lips. We know from anecdotes that the shadow was the good Doctor Haustein’s mistress, but in the picture she’s the menacing presiding spirit, a shadow watching over the life of flesh, an unnerving caution to bourgeois contentment and a siren song to the other side of mere appearances.
Like many Neue Sachlichkeit artists, Schad was keen on social and sexual transgressiveness. In a 1927 self-portrait, he’s dressed in a diaphanous, green-tinted garment and challenges the viewer to pierce the beautifully even skin of the painting and enter zones of moral unknowingness deepened by the presence of a woman outfitted in stockings and a velvet ribbon bracelet typical of what a streetwalker might wear, but she’s lying on sumptuous fabrics, which suggests she may be not a prostitute but a mistress or wife. And then there’s the nice domestic touch of a single iris in a vase. City rooftops visible in the background are veiled off from the sexualized interior by a sheath as transparent as Schad’s garment. The woman, indifferent to everything, bears a cheek scar that looks made by a razor. In this densely sexualized scene, nothing connects to anything else. The two figures, pressed toward the front of the picture, seem to occupy different realities; the public world lies out there beyond the magical green scrim; even the iris seems to occupy its own spatial system. The total picture enacts sexually saturated indifference and detachment. Most of Schad’s paintings disconcert: his methods are idealizing and distancing, so perfectly modeled are his figures, but what’s being idealized is strange extremity and defiant self-possession. He’s certainly not an intimate caricaturist like Otto Dix, in whose Circe a prostitute goes tongue-to-tongue with a chubby john already metamorphosing into his piggified self.
Dix produced the ugliest, most acidic and accusatory images to come out of the war and made the debased and grotesque into a new naturalism. He spent four years at the front as a machine-gunner (and must have killed dozens, maybe hundreds, of enemy soldiers) and was wounded several times. He revered the old masters and his graphic work has the swooping, elegant immediacy of Rembrandt’s etchings, but Dix’s content documents his season in hell and the city life he re-entered, with its profiteers, petty criminals, wretched veterans, and heavy partiers. In an etching from his 1924 series, Der Krieg, a gaunt painted lady and a war casualty confront us: her pinched lips and droopy eyes tell us that nothing can surprise her, not even the vet, whose face is a gaping, raggedy maw with one eye socket stitched shut. There’s no pathos or appeal in the image. It has an indifferent affect: this, it says, is how it was and how it is.
Max Beckmann, who as a medical orderly saw his share of war casualties (he was discharged in 1915 after a nervous breakdown), isn’t an easy painter to like, which makes me love his work all the more. His angular, brutal lyricism can be caustic, angry, hieratic. He spoke for the ambition of many New Objectivity artists, and for his own classicizing streak, when he wrote that the important artists were those who could extract “from our own time — murky and fragmented though it may be — types that might be for us, the people of the present, what the gods and heroes of past peoples were for them.” Beckmann’s pictures of a beach scene and a masquerade party are stiffly packed with recognizable modern types painted as if they were icons or (sometimes comic) theatrical props. His New Objectivity contemporary Georg Schrimpf seems a world or epoch apart. Schrimpf’s domestic motifs and landscapes (even a semi-industrial one of a rail crossing) are becalmed, coherent visions of a settled world and have their own quietly heroic assertiveness. Beckmann, though, is always pushing at us, and his self-portraits are some of the brave provocations of the modern period. When he presents himself as a club-going swell in a tux, smoking a cigar, he’s boasting the dynamics of self-reinvention: he looks quite arrogantly content with his reconstruction, daring us to unsay or doubt the change.
New Objectivity is a very wide tent — over 150 works by over 50 artists — but the worm of historical unease eats its slow way through most of the things on view, even sober still lifes, interiors, and depictions of the new architecture. The photographer Arthur Köster specialized in the Weimer period’s architectural adventures, particularly the new crisp, spare, suburban housing-block settlements. Their clean volumes, shrunken massiveness, and hard-edged shadows owed a lot to Pittura Metafisica, a movement of the 1910s whose best-known exemplars were Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà. The settlements were rather mild encroachments on the natural order. Not so the industrialized landscapes that would soon become part of a remilitarized Germany. Albert Renger-Patzsch’s photos are insinuating premonitory images: one close-up of scrubland and wire fences reveals in the deep distance Essen’s steel mills and smokestacks. In a different dimension, still lifes featuring posh stemware and cocktail sets or working-world stuff, such as buckets and ash bins (representing, respectively, two Germanies, the well-off and the not) restored the plainest things to public awareness with a new urgency and astonishment. In many of these photos, things have an existential aura of their own and seem to be observing us: Hans Finsler’s photo of a toothpaste tube, for instance, and Wanda Von Derschitz-Kunowski’s monumental close-up of a sewing machine that makes the domestic gadget, with its wheels and rods and plates, look like futuristic heavy machinery.
New Objectivity also produced a class of imagery called Lustmord, “sex murder,” depictions of sexual assault, murder, and mutilation. Dix and Rudolph Schlichter (of the Margot picture) made bloody Lustmord scenes so primal that while they shock they also weirdly and sickeningly enchant. The most unhinging of the type is Heinrich Maria Davringhausen’s painting The Sex Murderer, because the last element you take in is the murderer, hiding under a bed on which sits a naked woman. The cat pawing at her bed linen and the rubbery, wavering city visible outside her barred window create a brooding whimsy, but the brightest white in the picture is the white of the soon-to-be murderer’s eyes.
New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933, on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until January 18, 2016; 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, 323-857-6000, http://lacma.org">lacma.org