Crisis and melancholy

Georg Scholz. Self-Portrait in front of an Advertising Column. 1926. Oil on pasteboard, 59.5 x 78.5 cm. Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle.
Georg Scholz. Self-Portrait in front of an Advertising Column. 1926. Oil on pasteboard, 59.5 x 78.5 cm. Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle.

The melancholy that attends the work of the late Expressionists, and especially those of the New Objectivity, is inherent in the work. In Scholz’ self-portrait above, the individual is surrounded by advertising slogans and commercial businesses on a concrete street, and as in many portraits of the era, the subject himself seems set in amber. It is as if the Dionysian qualities of the German Expressionists, with their dynamic action and bright colors, had exhausted themselves, leaving only an Apollonian contemplation of the cities that were left in their wake. The New Objectivists also abandoned the explicit nature-mysticism of the Expressionists — when nature is absent, as through the asphalt alleys of the city, one can’t see the spirit that inheres in it.

When we look back at these pictures from the perspective of history, knowing that the second European war was at least ten years in the offing, we may be accused of  inferring from the work our own sense of impending disaster for the subjects in the portraits themselves — a critical malfeasance to be sure. But the melancholy and sadness exhibited by these portraits, even those of an erotic and sexual nature, are inescapable, even once the historical context has been set to one side. The expression has a different spiritual quality: the subjects look out to us with a self-knowledge that they are doomed, and that they are losing their grip on the imaginative sensuality that their bodies express: a mourning. Art becomes a means of preserving the expression of sensual imagination for future generations, should they exist. Scholz, and the other figures in this portraiture, are becoming lost in the Culture Industry of 1920s Germany; propaganda and fascism were already imposing themselves on the individual imagination in the effort to exterminate it in the interests of a greater German whole. Hitler’s government grouped both Expressionists and New Objectivists in its definition of entartete Kunst. We need no government to do that for us in 21st century in America. We have learned from our Culture Industry to do it for ourselves.

During his sojourn in Germany in 1936-1937, Samuel Beckett acquired a familiarity with (if not an expertise in) both Expressionist and New Objectivist art.1 In 1949, he may have had in mind the German movement when he defined the project of the postwar artist in the Three Dialogues: “The expression that there is nothing to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” It remains a project of the artist who recognizes that he or she lives, writes, and paints in a post-catastrophic era.

  1. For more on this see Mark Nixon’s monograph Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936-1937, due to be released in paperback next month and now available for pre-order from here. []

2 thoughts on “Crisis and melancholy”

  1. This was very informative. Thank you. I have a deep interest in this period and Weimare Germany. Have you read Walter Benjamin? You must have. A

  2. Yes, I have, along with Adorno and Horkheimer.

    For cultural and aesthetic history I also find Peter Gay’s and John Willett’s studies of interest. And I can highly recommend Richard McCormack’s “Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity” by Richard McCormick, which broadens the discussion significantly and serves as something of a corrective to Gay’s and Willett’s perspectives.

Comments are closed.