On a broad scale, the exhibition [Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s at the Met in New York] reminds us that the break between nineteenth and twentieth-century western art was less about a turn from representational works toward abstraction but the refutation of the belief that art, by definition, had something to do with beauty. The Met’s curators have more specific goals: an exploration of Germany at a particular time and place. Germany had been rolling along brilliantly from its formation in 1871 until World War I sent it skidding into a ditch. It took the addition of the worldwide economic depression to bring on National Socialism—the ultimate example of the political cure that was worse than the disease. Art historians are easily seduced by the notion that the art they love is a reflection of a culture and, at its most prescient, a reflection of where a culture, a civilization or an era is heading. So it is easy to look back on these disturbing works and see the signs of putrefaction that would end in National Socialist victory.
But painting is the world’s most biased medium, and it is dangerous to find universal truths from what it shows. To look at what the Met has hung in seven galleries and you’d hardly guess that the Roaring Twenties were often quite fun in Germany—despite the war, the reparations to the victors and the hyperinflation of 1923. The Portrait of Anita Berber (1925) by Otto Dix shows the dancer at twenty-six, two years shy of death by dissipation; wearing an ice-white face of a woman three times her age and flaunting a blood-red dress as if posing for Vogue, she looks every bit the candidate for an early grave, but it must have been a thrill while it lasted: in his memoirs, the boxer Max Schmeling recalls the time that Berber took a table in the crowded dining room of the Adlon—quite the grandest hotel in Berlin—escorted by two young men. Berber ordered three bottles of Veuve Clicquot, opened the diamond broach on her fur and, letting it fall, toasted her companions in the nude.