Neue Sachlichkeit at Ubu Gallery, Delia Brown at D’Amelio Terras, David Remfry at Neuhoff
Neue Sachlichkeit : New Objectivity in Weimar Germany
Ubu Gallery until December 18 (416 E, 59the Street, between Sutton Place and First Avenue , 212-753-4444).
Delia Brown: Paintings
D’Amelio Terras until December 23 ( 525 W. 22 nd Street , between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-352-9460).
David Remfry: Paradiso
Neuhoff until December 17 (41 E. 57th Street , at Madison Avenue, 212-838-1122).
Sixty years after his death in Germany , images by Georg Scholz are on mantelpieces and bulletin boards all over New York . By coincidence, works by this fantastic realist were chosen to publicize two exhibitions whose overlap was itself unplanned. The Neue Galerie chose Scholz’s surreal caricature in paint of a family of “industry farmers” from 1920 for its survey, “Comic Grotesque: Wit and Mockery in German Art, 1870–1940.” For its extensive survey of “Neue Sachlichkeit” — the new objectivity in art of the Weimar era — Ubu Gallery used a more literally prickly image, if not a biting satire, the masterfully intense “Still-life with Cactus II” (1924).
The Great War turned art, as everything else, on its head. Where the prewar thrust had been towards fragmentation, wholeness became the norm. Thus in France , Cubism gave way to classicism, with the same artist — Picasso — as the pioneer of revolution and counterrevolution alike. In Germany , Expressionism had held artistic ascendancy. But the raw, the primitive, the disjunctive — however culturally subversive it originally had been in intent — came to seem as prophetic of savagery as Cubism or Futurism were of the destructive implications of mechanization.
The turn toward objectivity was understood by its first theorists as a two-fold phenomenon. There was a newfound stillness, composure, and sense of tradition, especially in provincial landscape painters. But equally pronounced, in new urban realism, was a savage, satiric, subversive tendency that also drew on tradition — the tradition of German mannerism and the grotesque. The pearly finesse of Scholz’s paint surface — its measured, even, alloverness — and the cruel humor of his social vision, bridged the divide between these tendencies.
So did the work of the better known new objectivist, Christian Schad, the subject of a thorough and insightful solo exhibition at the Neue Galerie last year. He is represented at Ubu by two powerful works in portraiture. One captures the Baroness Vero Wassilko in a Parisian party setting. The letters “ULIN” coyly intimate the Moulin Rouge. The cropped dinner suits of the men, one black, surrounding her intimate a social fluidity that offsets her aristocratic, aloof gaze. As was Schad’s fondness (think of his notorious self-portrait in a see-through shirt), the Ruthenian noblewoman wears a scant blouse joined with almost outrageous suggestiveness by a posy of purple flowers whose spindly stalks mimic pubic hair.
Photography fares well in this broad but historically scrupulous exhibition. There are vintage prints of Karl Blossfeldt’s legendary blow-ups of plant forms and of August Sander’s portrait of an archbishop (the latter, typically, emphasizes the office rather than the individual). A Viaduct from 1928 by Albert Renger-Patzsch has the eerie, vacant stillness of a de Chirico .
But even at their most prosaic and “objective,” images in this show exude a metaphysical quality that gives them the unmistakable aura both of German art and, more generally, a culture in a state of shock. The era truly belonged to those artists who inherited as much as they rejected from expressionism, tinging their “objectivity” with savage line and biting observation: Eddy Smith is represented by an exhilaratingly cruel rendition in pencil of a murderer caressing a dove.
Devastating as this evil gaze is, happier faces linger, particularly the portraits of children (this was a period as fascinated by the child as the sociopath). There is a curious, vaguely erotic portrait of children from 1927 by Ernst Neuschul, and from the future eroticist and photographer Hans Bellmer, two exquisite, early drawings. A Durer-like one on red paper, of a girl with a gently mocking leer, is uncanny in the extent to which it anticipates early Lucian Freud, for all that the great British realist denies the possibility of influences from his Berlin boyhood.
A “decadent” culture often reveals most about itself in moments of escape. No wonder that “new objectivity” artists like Georg Grosz , Rudolf Schlichter, and Bruno Voigt — all represented at Ubu — were fascinated by motifs of revelry: parties in general, and dance in particular, served as both allegory and an object of satire — “The Death Dance Begins” is the title of a haunting watercolor by Voigt.
Neither allegory nor objectivity inform anything much in the enervatingly academic paintings of Delia Brown. The mix of competent conservatism and youthful sexuality in technique and subject matter respectively hardly combine to pass muster as “bad girl” painting, as some wishful clippings from the fashion press seem to suggest. (Ms. Brown is a photogenic darling of the fashion world, as not unflattering self-portraits reveal. ) More a Forum Gallery refugee than a Lisa Yuskavage wannabe, she simply isn’t good enough to be bad.
In her last show of pool party watercolors, there was a frisson of possibility in both qualitative directions — the aqueous met the vacuous in a seemingly knowing flirtation with kitsch. But the meretricious updates of Rubens compositions with the artist’s bronzed and honed girlfriends standing in for Flemish flesh have one pining for the old new objectivity.
If after the cruelty of Grosz or the imbecility of Ms. Brown you hunger for empathetic observation of the party animal, relief is at hand in David Remfy’s remarkable series of dancing couple at Neuhoff. His understanding of bodies lost in concentrated revery is warm, lyrical, astute. A quiet realist on the fringes of British pop, Mr. Remfry recently sprang to international attention with a series of fashion drawings commissioned by Stella McCartney, which recalled Schiele in their doll-like solipsism. The dancers, more perceptually worked through than the fashion drawings, masterfully exploit a tension of mediums as watercolor in its reckless fluidity and graphite with its brittle awkwardness tango upon the page.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 9, 2004