Some months ago we went to the NGV to see the Vienna Art and Design exhibition. As you walked around that exhibition, which took a largely chronological approach, the 20th century works in the final rooms became increasingly fractured, subversive and unsettling, and the political chill of the approaching Nazism was almost palpable.
However, entering this current exhibition, part of the Art Gallery of NSW’s travelling exhibition program, what had seemed to be subversive in the Vienna exhibition now appeared defiant and brave. As a child, one of my favourite stories was The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, where a shard from an evil, broken mirror enters the eye and makes everything appear ugly. Shards have warped the vision of the world here- a perverted, edgy, dissonant world- but it’s also a world clearly responding to the ugliness outside of war, defeat, inflation, radicalism and increasing totalitarianism.
The shadows of World War I are long, and they manifest themselves through confronting depictions of maimed soldiers, pushed to the margins of society. Were disfigured soldiers found in English art of the same period?- I’m not aware that they were. I’m sure that the wounded were just as present but their meaning was different for the side that ‘won’ the war.
There is also the underlying menace of sexual violence, exemplified by Davringhausen’s painting of Der Lustmorder (The Sex Murderer) where a sickly, boyish prostitute lies on a bed oblivious to the murderer lying underneath (see here) and there are film clips of abducted women in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and debased women in Metropolis. This is an ugly world.
The last room of the exhibition has archival footage showing Hitler’s Degenerate Art exhibition, where works such as these were collected and shown, captioned with ridicule, before being destroyed or sold off onto the international market. One of the final paintings in the exhibition is The Mad Square, from which the exhibition takes its name, by Felix Nussbaum, depicting artists protesting against their exclusion from the Prussian Academy of Arts, their artworks tucked under their arms. It is sobering to remember that Nussbaum and his entire family perished in the concentration camps.
This is an unsettling exhibition. After a while, the blockbuster exhibitions tend to merge into a bit of an blur (did we see that at The Impressionists? or Vienna? or Dutch Masters?) but I think that this exhibition stands alone. Well worth seeing.
There’s an excellent companion website here at the Art Gallery of NSW.