Richard Oelze, “Expectation” (1935-36), oil on canvas (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, digital image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY)

At a lecture on March 8 in connection with Neue Galerie’s current exhibition, Before the Fall: German and Austrian Art of the 1930s, its curator, Dr. Olaf Peters, cited the raised left arm of a puppet in a 1936 drawing by Austrian artist Rudolf Wacker (not on exhibit) as a “reject[ion] of the German greeting of the right arm.” Many such easy-to-miss details emerge in Before the Fall, an enigmatic look at the artistic developments in Austria and Germany in the years leading up to World War II.

The exhibition is the third in a trilogy curated for Neue Galerie by Peters, an art history professor at Martin-Luther-Universität in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, and a scholar on Weimar-era art. (Peters also curated Neue Galerie’s 2010 Otto Dix retrospective, which traveled to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art.) It follows Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 (March 13-September 1, 2014) and Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933 (October 1, 2015-January 4, 2016). The former revisited the infamous 1937 Nazi exhibition of modern art, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art); the latter homed in on the vibrant and tumultuous cultural landscape of Weimar-era Berlin.

The current exhibition offers insights into the period that are less historical and more intuitive than its predecessors, both of which centered on narratives and artists at least nominally familiar to American audiences. Although Before the Fall includes such well-known artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, and Alfred Kubin, several lesser-known artists provide new and sometimes startling perspectives.

Max Beckmann, “Paris Society” (1931), oil on canvas (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)

The exhibition is organized thematically into the sections “Still-Life,” “Society,” “The Individual,” “Landscapes” and “Drawings” (the last encompassing all the others). The themes bring together stylistically or politically diverse artists, and make room for the lesser-known names. Peters allows himself enough leeway with the categories to illuminate overlapping  formal and ideological concerns and spark connections between artworks — for instance, bookending the still life room with two images of human beings, a classically  reposed nude and a dead soldier caught in barbed wire.

The former, “Female Nude on the Sofa” (1928) by Georg Scholz, epitomizes the sobriety that characterizes Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) portraiture. (Scholz is also responsible for one of the era’s most scathing satirical paintings, Industriebauern or “Industrial Farmers,” 1920.)

The latter, Josef Scharl’s “Fallen Soldier” (1932), is a reminder that even as artists anticipated the future they continued to work through past trauma. The contorted body of a WWI casualty lies, Pieta-like, entwined within gold and rust-colored spears of barbed wire. His face, eyes closed and mouth agape, is a putrid pale green; the only vivid color is the fiery red of an open chest wound.

Between the radically different treatment of these two bodies are a host of weird compositions and juxtapositions. Franz Sedlacek’s delicate “Still-Life with Lizard” (c. 1935) is a precision rendering of tendrils and arabesques forming a flower bouquet and a spiky lizard. Karl Völker’s paintings “Mask with Balls” (c. 1930) and “Puppet Theater” (1931-32) endow a devilishly smiling mask and two fanciful puppets, one with a Toucan-shaped beak, with a spirit that seems exorcised from aloof Neue Sachlichkeit portraiture.

Rudolf Wacker, “Two Heads” (1932), oil on panel (Belvedere, Vienna, photo © Belvedere, Vienna)

Rudolf Wacker, who deserves his own survey, created some of the exhibition’s most bizarre imagery. The claustrophobic space of a half-filled aquarium, containing a lone goldfish (“Aquarium,” 1938), is suffused with a sense of dread, while the sad, drooping flowers and dead monarch butterfly in “Autumn Bouquet (with  Pinned Butterfly)” (1938) create a moribund atmosphere. (Völker’s nearby bouquet of wilting vegetables, “Autumnal Still-Life,” 1934, echoes Wacker’s painting.)

Wacker’s “Damaged Head” (1934) is a profile view of a wooden female bust, the side of her head and her nose partially sliced off. It evokes the medical photographs of soldiers with horrific facial wounds, dubbed “men without faces,” that gained notoriety in Ernst Friedrich’s pacifist 1924 publication War Against War!

Franz Sedlacek, “Landscape with Rainbow” (1930), oil on panel (University of Applied Arts Vienna, Collection and Archive, © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Collection and Archive)

Wacker was a prisoner of war on the Eastern Front during WWI and died in 1939 from injuries sustained in a Gestapo interrogation. While it’s difficult to not identify the goldfish in its shallow pond, painted at the height of Hitler’s power,  with the artist in a Russian prison or Nazi interrogation room, the catalogue rightly warns against interpreting the artworks in the exhibition as portents of the events to come.

Peters writes in his essay “Behind Reality,” “It is important to guard against projections, when considering the works in this exhibition […] it is perhaps too easy to attribute to them prognostic, visionary power, but they are nevertheless products of their specific historical circumstances.”

One of the exhibition’s key works, Richard Oelze’s “Expectation” (1935-36), in the “Landscape” section, speaks to this tendency and the artworks’ complex historical milieu. The painting depicts a crowd of people turned toward a forested landscape, loomed over by a heavy sky. Its greenish hue casts a film-noir shadow over the scene, but its mood is ambiguous, befitting its succinct title. A similar sense of  uncertainty inflects many of the landscapes. Something sinister may reside  in Hans Adolf Bühler’s “The Wild Forest” (c. 1937), with its bloody animal carcass at the center; clearly, Rudolf Schlichter’s cartoonish watercolor “Devil in the Forest” (c. 1933) depicts a threat.

A. Paul Weber, frontispiece illustration for Hitler: A German Doom (1931-32), ink on paper (A. Paul Weber Museum
© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Yet some of what appears ominous today reflects mythology or dreams — subjects favored by late-19th century Symbolist painters like Max Klinger and Arnold Böcklin, who influenced this generation. Albert Renger-Patzsch’s photograph “Beech Forest in Autumn” (1936) casts thick tree trunks as giant legs lumbering through the forest, while “Hills of Düppel” by Franz Radziwill, a modern artist and Nazi sympathizer, portrays a gridded farming landscape invaded by a wild, creatural  black bush. Both images could illustrate the Brothers Grimm.

Oelze’s conté crayon drawing “Frieda” (1936), named after a protagonist in Franz Kafka’s 1926 novel The Castle, is stranger still. Her body, vertically oriented down the center of the  sheet, curves amorphously. Negative space on her forehead and legs suggest an erasure of the mind and body, a prelude to the subject’s dissolution. Placed in the landscape section, the work subtly mirrors Renger-Patzsch’s tree trunks. The parallel merges  the body and the land, both open to symbolic and real colonization, both easily severed from the sanctity of nature and self by the will of others — and, as World Wars I and II made all too clear, both organic matter subject to destruction and eventually united as one.

The  resurgence of representation that characterized Neue Sachlichkeit is often understood in the context of the international “return to order,”  the culturally conservative response to  the chaos of WWI. The prominence of portraiture also suggests a return — or, more accurately, a reconstitution — of the  intact body in art following its decimation in war, and the ensuing collapse of social, economic and political structures.

The exhibition’s “Individual” section features some standards of Neue Sachlichkeit portraiture, notably Otto Dix’s “Portrait of Johann Edwin Wolfensberger” (1929) and “Portrait of a Blonde Girl” (1932); Max Beckmann’s richly atmospheric “Self-Portrait with Horn” (1938), from the Neue Galerie’s collection, is also on display, but in the “Society” section.

Otto Dix, “Portrait of Johann Edwin Wolfensberger” (1929), oil on panel (courtesy of Neue Galerie New York, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

The works in Before the Fall represent an impressive range of styles and techniques; the sections comprise Berlin Dada-esque collage, right-wing propaganda posters and left-wing illustrations, and prints in addition to paintings, drawings, and photographs. (The exhibition also includes five women — Dicker-Brandeis, Annemarie Heinrich, Lois Pregartbauer, Ottilie Cieuszek, and Erika Giovanna Klien — a fair number for the era.)

Unlike the clear right- and left-wing dichotomies in the Degenerate Art show, it can be hard to identify who is a Nazi sympathizer and who is not: the Aryan purity of Herbert von Reyl-Hanisch’s “Portrait of Marianne Reyl” (1930) is infused with the stylized elegance of a “degenerate” Christian Schad painting.

In other works, the body seems to be damaged or disintegrating: for example, in Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’s gorgeous, haunting “The Interrogation II” (1934-38), which portrays a figure with dark shadows for eyes and bloodied hands in scraped and scumbled patches of pigment. Wacker’s “Two Heads” (1932), depicting the aforementioned bust and a childlike drawing of a face, is differently disquieting, as are Scharl’s paintings “The Uniform” (1931) and “Gala-Uniform” (1935), both of uniformed soldiers with blank eyes, rendered through zones of solid color and thick lines; in the former, the uniform’s linear and chevron pattern doubles as a skeleton.

August Sander, “Children Born Blind” (1930-31), gelatin silver print (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2017 Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; ARS, New York)

Blindness, allegorized in both Dicker-Brandeis’s and Scharl’s paintings, is literalized in August Sander’s photographs of blind men (“Blind People” and “Blind Miner and Blind Soldier,” both c. 1930) and a poignant photograph of a blind boy and girl holding hands (“Children Born Blind,” 1930-31). They represent what  Sander called the “last people” — the disabled or dying. Part of his monumental People of the Twentieth Century series, here they hang alongside photographs of celebrities, uniformed Nazis, and Jewish men and women.

Two distinct highlights of the exhibition, both in the “Society” section, are a suite of four Max Beckmann paintings and a series of linocut prints by Wilhelm Traeger.­­ The opportunity to see any of the Beckmann works in closer quarters than at the Met or  the Museum of Modern Art is reason enough to see Before the Fall. Beckmann’s bold, confident lines and deft handling of space — crowding the picture plane without losing any elements; creating the illusion of space where there is none — activates these paintings. In “Self-Portrait with Horn,” The artist wears a red-and-black striped robe and holds a bugle to his face. The sensuousness of the painting is offset by a sense of uncertainty as he looks to the side. Next to “Pandora’s Box” (1936 and 1947), his furtive glance assumes a foreboding air. A carnivalesque array of mutilated and drowning bodies in “Galleria Umberto” (1925) serves as the inverse of the repressed socialites in “Paris Society” (1931).

At the center is Beckmann’s masterwork of political commentary, “Birds’ Hell” (1938). Monstrous bird-men saturated in garish yellows and blues greet one another with Nazi salutes amid a harrowing scene of ritual violence. Led by a four-breasted figure (an earth goddess representing Nazi ideology, as my colleague Thomas Micchelli noted in January 2017), the painting is  unremitting in its nihilism and savagery.

Max Beckmann, “Self-Portrait with Horn” (1938), oil on canvas (courtesy of Neue Galerie New York and Private Collection, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Installed on the wall opposite Beckmann’s paintings, Traeger’s suite of 41 linocut prints, Wien 1932 (Vienna 1932, 1932) is a stark portrait of the time. Traeger, who referred to himself in a 1979 interview as a “seismograph,” provides a panorama of the city, interweaving corruption, wealth and apathy with poverty and physical and emotional trauma. His caricatural renderings invoke George Grosz’s cutting social satire, but he replaces Grosz’s dark humor with grotesque and fatalistic images, haunted by death.

In “Newspaper Stand,” the gnarled, haughty faces of the upper class look down on an emaciated figure in a black robe; in “Tourism on the Karntnerstrasse,” a veteran on crutches begs for change, his body revealed as a skeleton. Two other plates, one depicting a middle-class woman, the other a street peddler, are particularly gruesome. The figures face down the viewer with Frankensteinian scabs and cadaverous grins, respectively. Traeger intensifies the effect with thick swaths of black ink and rough-hewn outlines.

In “War Invalid,” a veteran in a wooden wheelchair cranks a phonograph, presumably to earn a living on the street. His face, partly hidden by a hat, is hardly discernible. What we can see coheres as a man stripped of his basic humanity. The despair of the image rivals anything in Grosz’s 1920 portfolio God with Us or Dix’s 1924 portfolio The War, the former a spectacle of depravity, the latter of injury and death.

In the spirit of Beckmann’s 1919 lithography portfolio Hell, Traeger’s Wien 1932 is particularly chilling for its portrayal of these scenes, if not the nightmarish figures, as banal and commonplace.

Somewhat hidden in the smallest gallery, Felix Nussbaum’s “Self-Portrait in the Camp” (1940), from the museum’s collection, is an image of the body bound seemingly by will alone.  In front of a wire fence under a deep gray sky, the artist — pale and wearing a ragged uniform — turns an eye toward the viewer as a fellow prisoner behind him defecates into a trashcan.

Felix Nussbaum, “Self-Portrait in the Camp” (1940), oil on panel (courtesy of Neue Galerie New York, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

In this instance, the political content is unambiguous: Nussbaum was detained by Nazis in an internment camp in southern France in 1940. He completed this painting while in hiding in Brussels, but in 1944 he was denounced and sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Yet the artist’s  three-quarter profile and the visual conflation of prisoners with rural peasantry recalls German Renaissance painting and suspends the work between its sociopolitical context and art historical heritage, expressing an interiority of almost ineffable tension.

After WWI, the victors recommenced their formal explorations, inventing Surrealism and Dada, among other avant-gardes. The defeated had more urgent matters to address. By returning to representation, to the details of life  embedded in bodies, objects, and the earth, the artists conveyed the hope that world might reassemble itself. That hope was dashed in 1933 with Hitler’s seizure of power.

Nussbaum’s defiant, doomed image, and to some extent all the works in Before the Fall, transcend their history; to paraphrase a quote from Paul Klee, they do not reproduce the visible, but “make visible” the human condition.

Before the Fall: German and Austrian Art of the 1930s continues at Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 28.

Natalie Haddad is an editor at Hyperallergic and art writer. She received her PhD in Art History, Theory and Criticism at the University of California San Diego. Her research focuses on World War I and...