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Struggle, Bloodshed, and the German Grotesque 

LOS ANGELES — “The ugly, the unusual, and the ugly.” The phrase introduces Reexamining the Grotesque: Selections from the Robert Gore Rifkind Collection on the Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork (LACMA) and serves as a type of working definition of the grotesque, an idea that’s shape-shifted its method via artwork historical past for hundreds of years. 

The textual content on LACMA’s web site goes on to explain the grotesque as “a persistent undercurrent in German artwork of the early twentieth century.” The exhibition itself, tucked away in a small room throughout the museum’s fashionable artwork galleries, options prints, drawings, and illustrated publications by artists related to German Expressionism and New Objectivity.

The Rifkind Middle, LACMA’s expansive and infrequently under-utilized assortment of German fashionable prints and drawings, is a treasure trove of the ugly, unusual, and ugly, however the query this present raises is what distinguishes this “grotesque” from any variety of artworks within the adjoining galleries — as an illustration, Cubism’s faceted girls, who savagely reify what Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as the “partitioned physique” of the grotesque; Giacometti’s quivering, attenuated our bodies; or the weathered, nearly anthropomorphic chair and lamp of Edward Kienholz’s “The Unlawful Operation” (1962).

The closest it involves a solution is battle. World Struggle I and its aftermath within the Weimar Republic are recurring themes, central sufficient to be cited within the introductory textual content, however not fairly sufficient to cohere the exhibition. It’s a disgrace as a result of the works that greatest exemplify a uniquely German grotesque, and a raison d’etre for this present, are those who mirror the battle and Weimar years.

Among the many most surprising is Otto Dix’s “Home Destroyed by Aerial Bombs (Tournai),” one in all three exhibited works from his 1924 etching portfolio Struggle (Der Krieg). The print is a response to Goya’s Disasters of Struggle etching collection (1810–20), however Dix abandons the visible logic that underpinned Goya’s didactic pictures. As a substitute, he manipulates perspective to supply a vertiginous home of horrors. A mis en abyme of openings within the bombed-out constructing creates a dizzying impact, whereas bullet holes and bloody wounds kind a constellation that connects the our bodies. 

Otto Dix, “Home Destroyed by Aerial Bombs (Tournai)” from the portfolio Struggle (Der Krieg) (1924), etching, aquatint, and drypoint

The print’s emotional core is a small little one killed by a head wound. Dix mitigates the gratuitous violence of even illustrating a lifeless little one by situating the toddler on the periphery, resting on a bare-breasted lifeless girl alongside the underside edge. Within the general context of Struggle, the mom and little one are an indictment of battle’s collateral harm; one other lifeless little one seems within the portfolio alongside a shell-shocked mom (not on view right here).

Different works match the grotesque theme however really feel like afterthoughts or nods to huge names (e.g., Kokoschka, Kirchner). And a few items that decision for context, like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “The Assassin” (1914) and Walter Gramatté’s “The Homicide” (1925) — examples of the period’s vile “lustmord” style — haven’t any accompanying wall textual content; a textual content wouldn’t excuse the photographs, however it might make sense of their inclusion past the concept that femicide is clearly grotesque.

Some examples associated to battle are additionally stretches. George Grosz’s “Blood Is the Greatest Sauce” (1919) captures the acidity of the artist’s political caricatures, nevertheless it’s tame compared with viscerally grotesque cartoons like his “German Doctors Fighting the Blockade” (1918), and Otto Schubert’s “Ration Carriers 1” (1917) is a kind of easy illustration of a wartime ration service. Extra problematic are the inclusion and juxtaposition of Conrad Felixmüller’s angular “Soldier in a Madhouse 2” (1918) and Dix’s borderline-cartoonish “Pores and skin Graft (Transplantation)” from Struggle.

The wall textual content fails to make clear whether or not viewers are supposed to see the topics — a veteran with PTSD and one with a disfiguring facial wound, respectively — as grotesque or query their characterization as such by the artists and Weimar viewing public (presumably the latter). It additionally aligns bodily and psychological wounds, throughout the context of the grotesque, with out addressing both the huge distinction between the 2 — e.g., the various kinds of abuses they suffered by the hands of the federal government, medical institution, and bourgeois public — or the sociopolitical penalties of seeing them as grotesque, then and now.

George Grosz, “Blood Is the Greatest Sauce” from the portfolio God with Us (1919), photolithograph

After the battle, many veterans with facial accidents had been hidden from public view in out-of-the-way hospitals, and a few had been reported as lifeless to their households; antiwar activist Ernst Friedrich detailed this in his 1924 photograph e-book Struggle In opposition to Struggle, which incorporates images on which Dix drew for pictures like “Pores and skin Graft.” In distinction, PTSD victims had been often on full public view as “invisible” wounds left many ineligible for state help, and consequently, destitute and unhoused. In each circumstances, that includes the photographs in a present on the grotesque dangers exploiting the boys yet again. (As an apart, the joint wall textual content might need talked about that Felixmüller taught Dix the etching method he utilized in Struggle.)

These points are comparatively minor, nevertheless, in comparison with the present of seeing the artworks in individual. The present is just too straightforward to overlook, wedged between sprawling galleries stuffed with the giants of Euro-American Modernism. A small Cubism present within the subsequent room not less than will get a outstanding wall label — the title is barely noticeable on this one. However as the perfect works bend actuality towards the weird, they mirror the world’s perpetual cycle of disasters like a corridor of mirrors. Georg Scholz’s satirical “Industrial Farmers” (1920), a smaller lithograph of his 1920 portray, is the political grotesque at its subversive sharpest: a household portrait of Weimar Germany’s profiteering farmers, it monstrously inverts the “noble peasant” trope. That it was made greater than a century in the past reaffirms that cynicism and exploitation are cornerstones of modernity.

By way of Germany and WWI, all roads result in Dix, who served all through the battle’s 4 years and returned to it time and again in his artwork. “Useless Man within the Mud,” from Struggle, is all the pieces that the exhibition guarantees: ugly, in its portrayal of a physique trapped within the relentless mud of the trenches; unusual, within the man’s uncanny slippage between quantity and flatness, physique and skeleton, sleep and loss of life; and ugly, most of all as a result of Dix noticed it within the flesh. 

Otto Dix, “Useless Man within the Mud” from the portfolio Struggle (Der Krieg) (1924), etching, aquatint, and drypoint
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “The Assassin” (1914), lithograph
Rolf Niczky, “Bolshevism, Germany’s Assassin” (c. 1919), lithograph
Otto Dix, “Pores and skin Graft (Transplantation)” from the portfolio Struggle (Der Krieg) (1924), etching, aquatint, and drypoint

Reexamining the Grotesque: Selections from the Robert Gore Rifkind Collection continues on the Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles) via March 5. The exhibition was organized by the museum.

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