The Body Politic

By Bader, Graham | Artforum International, January 2007 | Go to article overview

The Body Politic


Bader, Graham, Artforum International


With its unflinching portrayals of villainous politicians, maimed veterans, sex-trade casualities, and rapacious tycoons, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s" presents a riveting picture of a troubled time unnervingly resonant with our own. For art historian GRAHAM BADER, these images betray the signs of an intensifying subjugation of biology to politics, with implications for how the state--and artists--approach the human body today.

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WHOEVER IS DESIGNING the Metropolitan Museum of Art's signage must have a wry sense of humor. How else to explain the recent pairing of a gaudily made-up transvestite and a sternly elegant Greek god in the museum's ancient art galleries, where a fortuitously placed sign directing visitors to "Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s" makes it appear as if the looming cross-dresser from a 1927 painting by Christian Schad is sneaking up to peck the marble Hermes at her side? Situated immediately outside "Glitter and Doom"'s entrance, and thus serving as a kind of quasi-preface to the show as a whole, this unlikely encounter sums up two millennia of Western art as a story of gender-swapping and the flirting of past and present, with the human countenance at its heart. More specifically, the meeting highlights the necessarily political dimension of any representation of the human form. For just as the serene grandeur of Hermes's visage stands as a striking emblem of Periclean Athens's foundational democratic strivings (even if the object at hand is a later Roman copy), so the painted-on face of Schad's transvestite, appropriately taken as "Glitter and Doom"'s signal image, speaks volumes about Weimar Germany's own uncertain testing of the democratic framework first established in Greece over two thousand years before.

Curated by the Met's Sabine Rewald, "Glitter and Doom" features more than a hundred paintings and drawings--overwhelmingly portraits--by artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, which briefly flourished in mid-1920s Germany by returning to traditional pictorial technique and genres: still life, landscape, and portraiture, most often carefully crafted in oil on canvas or wood panel. As its catalogue is quick to declare, the show's focus is on the left-leaning Verist wing of Neue Sachlichkeit practice, foregoing the tame society portraits and classicizing views also associated with the term. And, indeed, the radical heterogeneity of the exhibition's human assembly belies the uneasy traditionalism of its works' pictorial means. Full of mutilated war veterans, withered prostitutes, destitute proletarians, and wizened bourgeois, "Glitter and Doom"--whose real star, with more than fifty works present, is Otto Dix--calls attention not just to the politics of bodily representation but to the human body itself as the vessel on which political power unleashes its most brutal force.

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For those who have surveyed the exhibition's motley faces and alternately ragged and fleshy physiques, it will come as no surprise that the specific discourses of biopolitics--on topics from public sport to birth control--took center stage in Weimar Germany as perhaps nowhere before, nor that the ideas behind these discussions inevitably cut both ways: Proponents of sexual liberalization, for instance, included both those committed to "natural" sex and those motivated to protect the "genetic stock" of the nation. Above all, as German historian Detlev J. K. Peukert has written, the era witnessed a process by which "[r]ules about what was natural, normal and healthy in the most intimate areas of life ... came [to be] stamped with the legitimizing authority of science." (1) The conflicted nature of this enterprise is front and center in Dix's 1921 portrait of the Dusseldorf urologist Hans Koch, whose scarred face and sinister-looking instruments (appliqued with silver foil to intensify their metallic menace) lend him the air of a torturer preparing for duty. …

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