A Bad, Bad World

German expressionists tried to make sense of a century rife with anxiety and danger.

In 1916, a French officer at the Battle of Verdun wrote the following in his journal: "Under the storm of machine gun, rifle, and .75 fire, the German columns were plowed into furrows of death. Imagine if you can what it would be like to rake water. Those gaps filled up again at once." By using a metaphor such as "furrows of death" and by asking the reader to imagine what it would be like to "rake water," this diarist bent reality so that he could more vividly convey his impressions about World War I.

That was the plan of attack for German expressionists as well. Like the officer at Verdun, these artists tended to distort or exaggerate natural appearances so that they could create a reflection of their own inner world. A show called Utopia and Alienation: German Art and Expressionism, 1900-1933, now on view at Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum, features around sixty works from this period. As it provides a thought-provoking glance at a complex moment in German history, it also proves what writers like Brandon Taylor have suspected for years: Artists in the Weimar Republic (roughly 1919-1933) anticipated themes that would be important during the Hitler era while building on traditions prevalent in German art since the Middle Ages.

For one thing, artists in Germany had for a long time practiced the selective and creative distortion of subjects so that the subjects' souls could be illuminated: The famous Gero Crucifix in Cologne, dating from around 1000 A.D., is a clear forerunner to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's wood sculpture of a gaunt Eve, executed around 1919 and included in this exhibit. The medieval artist sculpted a Christ whose head was built up from sharp vertical slits and whose stomach bulged as his body slumped forward on the cross. Kirchner's Eve is also tormented (she grimaces and lists to one side, with the effect that her shoulders seem misshapen), and here, too, a sharp linear style emphasizes inner agitation.

The revelation, though, and the reason for making the trip to Oberlin, is that the show clearly sets out the two strands that run through this kind of art. On the one hand is a series of prints, woodcuts, and paintings dating from around 1913 that are slices of Bohemian life. Kirchner, in works like "Bathing Scene Beneath Overhanging Branches," seems to advocate a return to a romanticized vision of nature. It is a lush, tropical scene in which the nude human figures seem to merge completely with the fauna and wildlife.

This utopian image actually looks like a blueprint for a Hitler youth propaganda film from the late '30s. Those films heavy-handedly emphasized the virtues of the simple life. So does this print. A favorite device in the propaganda films was the shot that had trees and/or foliage in the extreme foreground with the Hitler youth appearing in the background. (The message? "Nature Rules," of course.) The point is that there's nothing experimental about such images -- in fact, they typify a kind of genre realism that is popularly associated with the bland reactionary art in favor during the Hitler years.

On the other hand, a series of prints and a few paintings by artists as diverse as Käthe Kollwitz, Kirchner, George Grosz, and Lovis Corinth are full of anxiety and disillusionment. Works such as Kollwitz's 1910 etching and aquatint "Death and the Mother," one in a memorable series on heroic mothers, shows a mother arched backward in an attempt to ward off death (rendered as a skeleton and a black shadow that echoes the mother's shape) so that her child might live. Kollwitz's reputation as a "socialist" artist, i.e., an artist who compassionately explored the plight of the lower classes, is often remarked upon, and this piece is a strong example of her finest work in this vein. The half-dozen Kollwitz works in this exhibit also show how she was able to wring the maximum impact from a simple image. Death is literally this woman's double -- he's mingled his form with hers and also threatens her child. The mother's tensed leg muscles convey the great effort involved in protecting the child.

The compact sculptural grouping of the figures suggests a symbiotic relationship between all three. Kollwitz doesn't tell us that the mother will triumph; she's suggesting that life is a struggle and that children, without the mediating presence of their mothers, are in grave danger.

Even nature presents a struggle in many of these works. The majority of the landscapes are of nighttime scenes. In Karl Schmidt-Rotluff's woodcut of 1915, "Sunset on the Fjord," the sun is rendered as a huge black oval, and the town buildings are built from diagonal hatch marks. In fact, this splintered diagonal-rich town is a dead ringer for the one in the German expressionist film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was to come in 1919. In Caligari, a mountebank and his hypnotized subject murder young women. In Schmidt-Rotluff's small town, the houses look as though they could collapse at any moment, and the sun gives off no warmth. In both works, it's as though all is at the mercy of irrationality.

The same anxiety and melancholy etched into Schmidt-Rotluff's landscape can be found in the portraits in the exhibit. The best of these works are characterized by unflinching honesty: These are human beings shown with all their imperfections. That is certainly the case in Lovis Corinth's 1924 self-portrait. It's a striking work in charcoal, and one is amazed at how this artist, who lost the use of his right hand when he suffered a stroke in 1911, was able to regroup and to create focused work like this. In it, the artist shows himself sketching. But instead of relying on the mastery of line that had been a hallmark of his work prior to the stroke, Corinth builds up shapes by varying pressure and through contrasts between light and shade.

The sparseness of method goes along with a harsh, unsentimental view of artistic creation. It is concentration and willpower that are celebrated here, not the drive to create a masterpiece. In one of the work's most striking sections, Corinth captures his own intent gaze. As he confronts himself, he confronts the viewer: His anxiety is ours, too. This is not one of nineteenth-century German artist Caspar David Friedrich's visionaries, who stares out at the vastness of nature and is little concerned with exploring anxieties that lurk within; Corinth's work seems to say: "The artist is not divinely inspired. He does what he can."

World War I may have been partly to blame for this departure from nineteenth-century romanticism. The war was a traumatic experience from which many of these artists never recovered. How could an artist be divinely inspired, some of these artists asked, when there was so little in the world that suggested the presence of God? Soldiers wearing gas masks in the trenches looked like savage beasts out of a nightmare, not like human beings. Alienation and anxiety, for many German expressionists, was not just a part of living in the twentieth century -- it became the story of existence. As thinkers like Freud traced the demons that existed out there (mustard gas and efficient machine guns) to the demons that lurked within (aggression, power hunger), artists followed suit and gave free rein to their emotions and their intuition.

Kirchner's "Self-Portrait as Soldier" is one of the most wicked, rancid images in all German expressionist art. In it, the artist (who had recently suffered a nervous breakdown while serving as a soldier) depicts himself in military garb and with an arm chopped off at the wrist. Elsewhere in the painting he portrays himself as an emaciated nude. The colors -- a gaudy assortment of deep reds, dark blues, and fleshy oranges -- do battle with the jagged and gaunt depictions of the artist's body. There is a disconnection between all that bright color and the resolutely angular substructure on which it is foisted. The artist felt powerless to deal with the world, just as we, the viewers, struggle to make sense of this combination of luridly bright color with gaunt angularity. Kirchner's point is that it's useless trying to make sense of it: The world is a dangerous, irrational place.

German expressionism wasn't born underneath a lamplight on a rain-soaked Munich street at midnight sometime around the start of World War I. The emotions were there for a long time, but it took the twentieth century to propel them this harshly into the light of day. Though there are respites from the horrors of modern life in these works, they are brief, and even then they conjure disturbing associations. This is art that gnashes its teeth and is uncompromising about showing what inner suffering is like.