Weimar Dreams: "From Berlin to Broadway" at
The Morgan Library & Museum

Unlike Aubrey Beardsley, who reveled in and modeled his persona on the decadence of England in the 1890s, Otto Dix held the decadence of Germany in the 1920s up to ridicule at arm’s length. While Beardsley employed an ornamental line to celebrate what Camille Paglia called “the tainted flora of the late phases of culture,” Dix stabbed at the paper as if to impale the pretensions of his era with his pen.

Yet Dix as much as Beardsley demonstrates Havelock Ellis’s thesis “The difference between a classic style and a decadent style is that the first is beautiful because the parts are subordinated to the whole; the second is beautiful because the whole is subordinated to the parts.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in “We Want Bread” (1923), an ink drawing by Dix in the exhibition “From Berlin to Broadway: The Ebb Bequest of Modern German and Austrian Drawings,” at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, through September 2.

Not only does Dix subordinate the whole to its parts in this depiction of stark social contrasts between the ostentatious patrons of a Berlin cafe (their features ranging from Aryan-simian to Semitic-aqualine) and a ragtag procession of impoverished protesters passing outside its window, he also supplies stylistic templates for two distinctly different later draftsmen: the New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg (an exhibition of whose drawings preceded this show at the Morgan) and the theatrical illustrator Harry Hirschfield. For while the features of a woman seated at a table on the right hand side of the composition are strikingly similar to those of Steinberg’s anthropomorphic felines, her male companion could easily pass for one of Hirschfield’s caricatures, from his exaggerated profile right down to the stippled textures of his tweed jacket, which trails off in an elegant linear manner at the shoulder, compelling the viewer to complete the figure through visualization.

In the case of Harry Hirschfield, particularly, it is interesting to speculate on the question of influence, since Fred Ebb, who bequeathed the forty-three drawings and watercolors in the exhibition to the Morgan in his will, moved in the same theatrical circles as the illustrator. A successful Broadway lyricist who collaborated with the composer John Kander on several hit shows, including “ Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” Ebb started collecting expressionist drawings and watercolors in the mid 1960s, while researching the team’s hit musical “Cabaret,” which takes place in Germany in the twenties and thirties.

But don’t be deceived into idealizing the demimonde of Weil and Brecht by the smarmily seductive invitation to “Come to the cabaret” that Ebb wrote for Joel Grey, whose character could have been inspired by the sallow-faced, tux-clad master of ceremonies in Emile Nolde’s watercolor “Conferencier” (ca. 1910-11)

In the chapter of his long out of print memoir “An Autobiography” entitled “The Weimar Republic,” George Grosz recalls: “It was a completely negative world, with gaily colored froth on top that many people mistook for the true, the happy Germany before the eruption of the new barbarism. Foreigners who visited us at that time were easily fooled by the apparent light-hearted whirring fun on the surface, by the nightlife and the so-called freedom and flowering of the arts. But that was really nothing more than froth. Right under that shortlived, lively surface of the shimmering swamp was fratricide and general discord, and regiments were formed for the final reckoning.”

Even more vividly descriptive than his prose, however, is Grosz’s watercolor “Barberina” (1925), in which grotesquely made up and overdressed patrons of a real life Berlin cabaret posture like animated cadavers. While Grosz captures the social preening and the “lively surface of the shimmering swamp” in luminous watercolor washes, Otto Dix skewers its subterranean lowlife in “Pimp and Girl” (1923), where his linear treatment of the mustachioed ponce with dangling cigarette and his languorous naked hooker owe something to Grosz’s ferociously satirical portfolio of drawings “Ecce Homo,” published a year earlier.

Along with Max Beckmann and Rudolf Schlichter (represented here with the ca. 1922 watercolor “Neapolitan Street”), Grosz and Dix were leading figures of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a movement initiated between the two World Wars by a group of Berlin artists disillusioned with the disengaged distortions of the Expressionists and dedicated to a more pointed social realism.

Also included in the group was Jeanne Mammen, who combined an acidic vision  with an especially refined watercolor technique and was to gain a belated cult following among feminists in the 1970s for her lesbian subjects. In contrast to her tender depictions of love between women, the title of Mammen’s watercolor “The Joy of Nature” (ca. 1930) calls ironic attention to the obvious discontent of a frumpy heterosexual couple languishing on a park bench. Another picture, “Cafe Reimann” (ca. 1931), originally created as an illustration for a gay and lesbian guide to “Immoral Berlin,” depicts a more fashionable and perhaps more jaded pair of male and female voyeurs sitting at a cafe table, smoking and surveying the surrounding scene through slitted eyes.

While the barbed realism of the Neue Sachlichkeit may have initially jibed more harmoniously with the literary bias of a Broadway lyricist researching local color, Ebb’s taste apparently broadened as he encountered earlier German art. For, along with Nolde’s “Conferencier” (a rare urban subject for an artist better known for primitive themes), he also collected pre-World War I drawings and watercolors by Expressionists such as Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, as well as their disaffiliated contemporaries Ludwig Meidner, Christian Rohlfs, and Karl Hofer. Kirchner’s watercolor “Figures on a Busy Street” (1914), with its tension between geometry and gestural energy, and Heckel’s “Seated Man (Self-Portrait),” 1912, showing the influence of African masks, are among his most outstanding Expressionist acquisitions.

Perhaps influenced by Barbara Streisand, a fellow collector for whose film “Funny Girl” he wrote lyrics, Ebb also acquired works by the Austrian artists Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele. In fact, along with Streisand and other showbiz types like Billy Wilder, Ebb was among Schiele’s first American collectors. He purchased eight of his drawings, including “Self-Portrait” (1910),” in which the artist’s head is set eerily afloat on an otherwise bare sheet of paper, as well as several figure drawings in the spare, sinuous linear style for which he was known, some with an expressive emphasis on disproportionately large hands.

Although Schiele’s drawings are often overtly erotic, here he is upstaged in that regard by his early mentor Gustav Klimt, whose two exquisite line drawings, “Seated Nude”(ca. 1907) and “Seated Woman with Raised Skirt” (ca. 1909-10), are both provocatively posed, with parted legs and the pubic patch prominent for being the only filled-in area of the composition.

Klimt’s slender, graceful figures have a brazen yet aloof allure that contrasts sharply with the awkward matter-of-factness of Oskar Kokoschka’s “Reclining Female Nude” (ca. 1911-12),  the abject nakedness of the stocky subject in Max Pechstein’s gouache “Kneeling Woman” (1909), and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s angular “Seated Nude” (ca. 1915) with its oversize head, symbolizing, according to Schmidt-Rottluff “the seat of the psyche.”

Although nudes are well represented in the collection, Ebb purchased only one landscape: Otto Mueller’s “Landscape with Trees and Water” (ca. 1923). Not surprisingly, this mundane work in colored chalks and gouache was an uninspired choice, given the antipathy toward nature that caused the lyricist to turn right around and make a beeline back to Manhattan the one time he visited his writing partner John Kander’s country house. (He may still have been recoiling from the visit when he penned the lyrics “Sties and stables sure are smelly / Let me sniff some kosher deli / Brightly lit by pretty city lights.”)

With the rise of fascism, the Weimar era was in its last gasp by 1932, the year the Neue Sachlichkeit draftsman and printmaker Karl Hubbuch produced his India ink drawing “The Film Star Spends Two Minutes in Her Parents’ Garden.” Like a butterfly alighting in a garbage dump, the blond bombshell appears to be slumming in her own past as she sits in the cluttered little yard, admiring herself in the mirror of a compact and applying lipstick, while neighbors gawk through the chain-link fence, their haggard appearance seeming a presentiment of future newsreels showing concentration camp victims behind barbed wire.

That same year, George Grosz, realizing it would be dangerous for him to remain in Germany, accepted an invitation to emigrate to New York and teach at the Art Students League. Later he would quip, “I left because of Hitler. He is a painter, too, you know, and there didn’t seem to be room for both of us in Germany.”

Apparently, the Weimar sensibility was a portable state of mind, judging from the leering female guitarist in Grosz’s watercolor “Musicians” (1932), painted on arriving in New York, where he found faces to rival those in his Berlin scenes. In another watercolor by his fellow exile Max Beckmann, “Nightclub in New York” (1947), the floor show features two sinister clowns in dunce caps, each gripping one leg of a female performer, as though about to sunder her like a wish-bone, while a jazz combo fiddles and thrums in the background. Come to the cabaret!

Other unexpected pleasures of the collection include “Railroad Workers II” (1915), a watercolor by the German-American artist Lyonel Feininger, in which the angularly abstracted figures toting a tie could be taken for pall-bearers carrying a coffin; “Savior’s Face with Open Eyes” (1923), a geometric composition by Alexei Jawlensky; Paula Modersohn-Becker’s “Half-Length Portrait of a Peasant Woman” (ca. 1899), a charcoal and colored chalk drawing combining classical realism with the darkly evocative quality of van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters; and “Rheumatics” (1927) a characteristically scratchy pen drawing of a stooped old man and his equally decrepit hound by the eccentric draftsman Alfred Kubin, who was a contemporary of the Weimar artists but eschewed their cafe society for the darker haunts of his gothic imagination.

Most of the German painters in the Ebb collection who held teaching posts in art academies and universities were fired from them, had their works confiscated from museums, and were forbidden to paint after Hitler took power in 1933 and snuffed the artistic freedom of the Weimar period. Many were driven into exile and some had the dubious honor of being included in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition held in Munich in 1937. Presumably these drawings and watercolors survived only because they remained well hidden or because even Nazis and philistines are reluctant to destroy anything that may have a monetary value. However, they have not been shown publicly in thirty years, making this an especially valuable exhibition.

Like “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” which closed earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum, “From Berlin to Broadway” offers glimpses of a fertile artistic epoch on the verge of being abruptly aborted. That in some unsettling ways it resembles our own era makes this show as timely as it is provocative.

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- Ed McCormack