A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War. Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. Reconstructing the Subject: Modernist Painting in Western Germany, 1945-1950

By Jensen, Robert | The Art Bulletin, March 1996 | Go to article overview

A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War. Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. Reconstructing the Subject: Modernist Painting in Western Germany, 1945-1950


Jensen, Robert, The Art Bulletin


RICHARD CORK Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 336 pp.; 136 color ills., 285 b/w. $55.00

MARIA TATAR Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. 213 pp.; 44 b/w ills. $23.00

YULE F. HEIBEL Reconstructing the Subject: Modernist Painting in Western Germany, 1945-1950 Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. 207 pp.; 8 color ills., 25 b/w. $45.00

Yule Heibel's remarkable reflections on German painting and culture after the Second World War, Reconstructing the Subject, poses the fundamental problem of artistic expression in the aftermath of profound trauma. She asks: "who has the right to express anything (and how?) in this situation; what meaning can an individual's affective charge possibly have; and how can there be even the possibility of expressing anything on an individual level in relation to a national, cultural tradition that included Nazism and genocide"(p. 17)? Heibel examines the search for a new image of man within the artistic and philosophical debates of postwar Western Germany. Two other recent books, Richard Cork's A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War and Maria Tatar's Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany, amply demonstrate that this crisis of individuality, which may also be read as a crisis of liberal humanism, has been a constant theme within modernism since at least the First World War. From the Somme trenches to the ovens of Dachau, artists have been confronted by the fundamental problem of making art, particularly an art that seeks to represent war and death, when faced with experiences so horrible that we would, if we could, deny them their human agency.

Of all the great dramas of the 20th century, art historians traditionally have been least drawn to the Great War and its representations. The twenty-fifth anniversary of August 1914 came and went almost without scholarly recognition, overshadowed by the momentous events of 1989, even though recent history is still so deeply entangled in its catastrophe. In the domain of high culture, the war put an abrupt stop to the heady artistic experimentation of prewar Western Europe. It halted the internationalism which thrived in every domain of cultural affairs, including the market for contemporary art. The center of avant-gardist artistic activity shifted during the war from Paris to such places as Zurich, Moscow, Prague, Berlin, and New York. The lives and aesthetic careers of a host of artists were also dramatically changed or ended. The war also coincided with and helped fuel the rise of the modern media. Dramatic technical and ideological transformations occurred in cinema, advertising, newspaper and book publishing, and so on. Finally, tragically, the war proved to be unfinished business. The Western powers, instead of healing Europe's wounds, demanded heavy war retributions from Germany. The fledgling Weimar Republic, never very stable, eventually collapsed with the Nazis' seizure of power. With even more tragic consequences, the Second World War was fought over the body of the First. And the horror of the Holocaust and nuclear Armageddon shaped the political and artistic culture of Europe and America for the next half century.

While there are many reasons why memory of the Great War has been both neglected in Western Europe and America and hotly contested in Eastern and Central Europe, it is still a little surprising that art historians have paid only passing attention to the war, and to its representations and cultural consequences. This neglect owes much to modernist histories of art, which diverted attention away from the war, first through the predominance of the formalized narratives of abstraction and then by privileging those who "dropped out" of the war, particularly the Zurich and New York Dadaists. War art suffered by comparison, carrying the burdens of narrative and representation dismissed by self-styled serious artists, that is, by the avant-gardists.

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