With all due respect to the princesses of Park Avenue, it must be said that it’s hard to distinguish their contemporary party ensembles from those of the two prostitutes moving through Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street Scene. One woman luxuriates in a red coat in the 1913-14 picture; the other, in blue, has flowers bursting from her hat like fireworks. Their lips are too brightly painted, their eyes are black slits, but otherwise they look like our society belles—one simply has to know the codes to tell the difference.
Kirchner’s picture, although long a textbook sampler of German Expressionism, was recently restituted to its pre–World War II owners and subsequently purchased by Ronald Lauder for the Neue Galerie. This show celebrates its arrival, bringing together similarly debauched urban imagery by Kirchner’s Berlin contemporaries. But while Street Scene is the showpiece, others outstrip it in decadence. George Grosz’s drawings are particularly arresting: Some are carved up by slanting light that reveals bare bottoms and clandestine meetings; one shows a sailor, packing a pistol and knuckle-duster, literally digging for gold on the edge of town. If the streets are bad enough, the scene indoors is worse: Among several images of downcast nudes are Christian Schad’s Two Girls (1928), which features a pair of women reclining, sad-faced and semi-naked, as they pleasure themselves in this astonishingly frank depiction.
The exhibition is brief, but more memorably chilling for it, and well rounded out by portraits. Some are of fellow artists, like the poet John Förste, a man with a glass eye who sits reading in Grosz’s 1926 likeness, the dud eye comically wide as if his book were deliciously scandalous. Others show patrons: Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Lawyer Dr. Fritz Glaser, from 1921, depicts a corpse of a man, whey-faced before a nightscape of gothic, snow-capped turrets. It’s a strange way to keep a patron, but maybe it’s simply an honest portrayal—judging by all the other characters staring mournfully from the walls in this exhibition, it seems there wasn’t a single happy soul in Weimar Berlin.