New Objectivity at LACMA

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The Weimar Republic, Germany's first democracy established in 1919 after the country's disastrous defeat on World War I, is known for being a time of social chaos and financial upheaval. It was also a time of sexual liberation. Think the lusty movie Cabaret, based on the Christopher Isherwood novel Goodbye to Berlin written after his years in 1920's Berlin.

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Kurt Günther, "Portrait of a Boy (Knabenbildnis)," 1928
Tempera on wood; 18 7/8 x 14 9/16 in. (48 x 37 cm)
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo: bpk, Berlin/Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie/Art Resource, NY

Dozens of German artists captured the drama of that period in a chilly realist style dubbed "Neue Sachlichkeit." That is the topic of a challenging and worthwhile exhibition at LA County Museum of Art, New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, on view through January 18, 2016.

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August Sander, "Painter's Wife (Helene Abelen)" (Frau des Malers Abelen), 1926
Gelatin silver print; 9 x 6 7/16 in. (22.9 x 16.4 cm)
© Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur --
August Sander Archiv, Cologne/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

New Objectivity, as the movement is translated into English, was the name of a 1925 exhibition in Mannheim of artists seen to be working in reaction against German Expressionism by using clean lines, smooth surfaces and repressed emotions. Artists usually associated with the movement include the well-known Christian Schad, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. This exhibition of nearly 200 works by some 50 artists shows the techniques to be widespread. The exhibition includes portraits, still lives, industrial and rural landscapes, cabaret and street scenes but most are rendered as though the artist was holding his, or her, breath. Even depictions of violence or romance have a clinical remove.

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Christian Schad, "Self-Portrait" (Selbstbildnis mit Modell), 1927
Oil on wood; 29 15/16 x 24 3/16 in. (76 x 61.5 cm)
Private collection, courtesy of Tate
© 2015 Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo: Benjamin Hasenclever, Munich

In one of his greatest works, Self-Portrait (1927) Schad portrays himself naked under a transparent laced tunic, like a second skin, while in bed with a bare-chested woman who looks away as he stares at the viewer. Georg Scholz's Cacti and Semaphore (1923) is a reinterpretation of the classic memento mori still life but with lightbulbs resting on a table in place of candles, cacti in lieu of flowers. Remembrance has become a brittle and prickly affair. Many portraits of children, typically a subject of sentimentality, are frankly frightening. In Kurt Gunther's Portrait of a Boy (1928), the steely-eyed lad, outfitted in tan sweater and shorts, seems ready for a future in the SS. Dix's naked, blue-veined pre-pubescent Little Girl (1922) was weird inspiration for Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy's Heidi series. (Thanks to colleague Michael Duncan for this insight.) The show includes many photographs, not usually thought to be part of New Objectivity, and they too are emotionally restrained even when documenting sexual freedom and cross-dressing in the racy milieu of Berlin.

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Georg Scholz, "Cacti and Semaphore" (Kakteen und Semaphore), 1923
Oil on hardboard; 27 3/16 x 20 9/16 in (69 x 52.3 cm)
LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster, Westfälisches Landesmuseum
© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo: LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur (Westfälisches Landesmuseum) Münster/Rudolf Wakonigg

The show is loosely divided into thematic sections but it could all be held under the canopy of "Life in Democracy and the Aftermath of the War." All of the work reflects Germany after the dismantling of centuries of social hierarchy, with a desperate population surging into the cities, countless maimed and homeless men and women begging in the streets. The country experienced bankruptcy, financial excess and collapse in the course of 14 years. It may be that we cannot help but view this show through the lens of our own time but much of the work seems timeless, wind-less, climate-less as if produced under a bell jar. Perhaps during this period of big emotions, the response was to shut down any feelings apart from cynicism. It was a period of such extreme change that in 1933 this new democracy elected Hitler to reassert control. The exhibition offers much to consider along with the opportunity to enjoy some brilliant works of art.

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Max Beckmann, "Dance in Baden-Baden" (Tanz in Baden-Baden), 1923
Oil on canvas; 42 1/2 x 26 in. (108 x 66 cm)
Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Pinakothek der Moderne
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo: bpk, Berlin/Bayersiche Staatsgemäldesammlungen/Art Resource, NY

New Objectivity is the latest triumph of LACMA's senior curator Stephanie Barron, considered an expert on modern art in Germany. She has been responsible for exhibitions on German Expressionist sculpture, on what the Nazis termed degenerate art, on the role of German emigres in exile in Southern California, on art produced after World War II in a Germany divided into Western and Eastern sectors and more. This field of curatorial interest was barely acknowledged in museums when she began her scholarly journey some 30 years ago. Now, thanks to her work, LACMA is the indisputable leader in this area.

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Herbert Ploberger, "Self-Portrait with Ophthalmological Models"
(Selbstbildnis mit ophthamologischen Lehrmodellen), c. 1928-30
Oil on canvas; 19 11/16 x 15 3/4 in. (50 x 40 cm)
Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich
© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Bildrecht, Vienna

However, it turns out that the museum's initial commitment to German Expressionism came with William Valentiner, the museum's German-born director from 1946 to 1954. He had brought some German Expressionist works into the collection while the museum was still located in Exposition Park. This is just one of the many facts revealed in Suzanne Muchnic's new book LACMA So Far. For more on that history, Muchnic and I will be in conversation at LACMA this Saturday at 2pm.