Two current New York museum shows, one about events between Mexico and France in the mid-19th century, the other about Germany in the early 20th century, provide uncanny political and aesthetic windows onto our current moment. Each exhibition comes on like a fever dream. The first shows a single artist, Edouard Manet, striding into a future that bumps directly against the present. The other captures a group of German artists desperately reaching into the stylistic past to picture humanity in a state of utter depravity and pain. Each exhibition treats history as a kind of tragedy—a downward spiral that many saw unwinding but could not circumvent.
MOMA’s compact “Manet and the Execution of Maximilian” is similar to the “Manet: The Execution of Maximilian” show seen at the National Gallery in London in 1992. As organized by MOMA’s John Elderfield, it demonstrates how much difference one artist can make to art history and that world leaders sometimes enter history by committing colossal blunders. The George Bush in this sad scenario was France’s Emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who forcibly installed Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico in 1864. The well-meaning Maximilian was executed by a Mexican firing squad three years later on June 19, 1867. Manet began painting the event the following month. The subject was so radioactive in Paris, however — the execution dealt the power and prestige of France’s empire such an irreparable blow that it collapsed in 1870 — that none of Manet’s pictures were exhibited in France in his lifetime.
The one-room MOMA exhibition contains a plethora of paraphernalia, much of it macabre, including photos of the firing squad standing at attention immediately after the event, Maximilian in his coffin, his bloody shirt, and more. The main attractions, however, are Manet’s three large pictures of the instant of the execution, painted between 1867 and 1869. The earliest and least compelling is a murky, quasi-Romantic image in which everything is indistinct. If this were the only painting of this subject there’d be no MOMA exhibition.
The show makes its points, however, in the two remaining paintings, which are not only crystal clear, they’re crystal balls. In them you can see Manet seeing in a way that maybe no one ever had ever seen before. In these two grand works—the second of which was cut up by his family, but reassembled later by Degas—Manet perceives the world as if he were a camera, almost without judgment or thought. He is “the machine” Warhol said he wanted to be. Everything in the paintings is depicted dispassionately, in parts, with no overall compositional unity or conventional narrative sequencing. You see shots fired, the victims still alive, a nearby soldier cocking his rifle, and spectators in conversation. Both of these paintings pushed art history into a whole new pictorial realm, serving as the genesis for a type of exploded vision that led directly to Cezanne’s further atomizing the things of the world, then to Picasso, Braque, Malevich, and Mondrian, who blew things apart for good.
The Met’s great “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” brilliantly organized by curator Sabine Rewald, doesn’t give us a creation story. Instead this last-stop- before-Armageddon -exhibition captures what people and countries look like the moment before they turn to ash. We see the star-crossed denizens of the horror-show known as “between-the-wars-Germany,” a done-for generation of doctors, prostitutes, businessmen, goons, geeks, industrialists, addicts, and assorted ladies, gentlemen, and gargoyles. The lurking shadow of a certain young Austrian corporal is ever in the wings. Those pictured radiate the aura of the catastrophes they suffered in World War I and the coup de grace they were irretrievably bound for in World War II.
“Glitter and Doom” establishes that Max Beckman and Otto Dix, along with George Grosz and others, were so hardwired to record degradation, pain, and bitterness, that they fashioned a sort of anti-modern Teutonic Cubism. Dix’s harrowing, hysterical, infinitely detailed pictures are resurrections of the Northern Renaissance crossed with a trauma center. Dix said that “art is an exorcism.” That shows in his work. “Lady with Mink and Veil,” his portrait of a ravaged 70-year-old prostitute, is one of the great paintings of abasement, humiliation, and hopelessness of the 20
th century. For his part, Grosz, who once said, “I thought war would never end, and perhaps it never did,” depicts German society as seen through the lens of a pig—or perhaps it was pigs through eyes of society. As for Beckman, he quite simply came closer to making paintings that have the pure presence of sculpture and cannonballs as anyone.
For a tangy dessert, the Met serves up one of the great pervert painters in art history. Like Beckman and Co., Christian Schad’s work was not as formally inventive as the Cubism or Suprematism . As with the others in “Glitter and Doom,” Schad worked in a figurative style. Yet, his hyper-realistic, ultra-racy paintings of women masturbating, transvestites in nightclubs, female genitalia rendered as if by Hannibal Lecter, couples in post-coital torpors, and one woman performing cunnilingus on another while cats sniff a nearby strap-on dildo, suggest the artist was in a kind of demonic state of decadent grace. Wielding old-masterish skill, Schad combined a dandy’s sensibility with a sex-fiend’s focus and jadedness. He was a mystic of sex, a connoisseur and scientist of it. Yet, sex, like the struggle for existence depicted by all the artists in “Glitter and Doom,” has seldom looked as glum or repellent.
The fifteen hard-boiled but glamorous little gouaches by Dike Blair—all of personal or mundane items like cigarette packs, ashtrays, cola cans, books, and tapes set in blank backgrounds or in what look to be divey coffee shops— exude what Lillian Hellman, speaking of Dashiell Hammett, called “an angry privacy.” Blair works with a draftsman’s attention to fact, a botanist’s eye for type, and a detective’s feel for telling clues. This places these gouaches, all painted between 1988 and 1997, in a no-man’s land between illustration, photography, and forensic science. Blair created a knotty sub-genre, a sort of visual split-infinity of style that related to artists like Richard Prince, David Robbins, and Vija Celmins.
Whatever it is, while the objects Blair depicts are everyday and lackluster, they also hold up weird mirrors to the inner-artist’s-life, things painters might look at while they’re fretting, brooding, or worrying about painting, or stare at in in-between moments. This gives Blair’s work a pulp-fiction, just-the-facts Zen-like aura: Everything is here and real, yet also telekinetic and illusory.