Review: ‘The Anxious Eye’ at the National Gallery of Art

A drawing of two very disgusting rotting skulls that appear to be debating
Otto Dix, ‘Dead Men before the Position near Tahure (Tote vor der Stellung bei Tahure),’ 1924, etching and aquatintplate: 19 x 25.6 cm (7 1/2 x 10 1/16 in.)sheet: 34.8 x 47.3 cm (13 11/16 x 18 5/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Print Purchase Fund (Rosenwald Collection)

William T. Vollmann’s World War II epic Europe Central centers around several real-life historical figures, each of whom speaks to the unique nature of the bitter war between Russia and Germany. One such character, the Soviet director Roman Karmen, comes upon a folio of woodcuts by another of the characters, artist Käthe Kollwitz, finding himself “moved to tears” by her Hunger (1923): “And how strange it was that he was moved! For he had known hunger himself, and his father had suffered at the hands of the White Guards. This was the moment when he understood that the representation of reality can be more real than reality itself.”

Kollwitz’s prints are totems of German Expressionism, which is the subject of a new show at the National Gallery of Art, “The Anxious Eye: German Expressionism and Its Legacy.” Why a show on German Expressionism right now—aside from the fact that our nation’s capital seems to be chasing a Weimar vibe?

The exhibition showcases over 100 works, with new acquisitions and rarely-seen collection works by Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Kollwitz, Egon Schiele, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Walter Gramatté. These are shown alongside postwar artists like Leonard Baskin, Nicole Eisenman, Orit Hofshi, Rashid Johnson and Matthias Mansen, with these later artists inviting us “to compare the social, political, and cultural transformations taking place in our own societies today.”

For me, Kollwitz is the queen of this era, but Dix is the king. Here they have his Dead Men before the Position near Tahure (1924), two chatty almost-skulls being consumed by their shadows. There’s a rich irony in the tactical location of the title because there’s no landscape in the scene and also they’re dead so who cares? Also on display is Dix’s Dance of Death Anno 17 (1924), which has a decade on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) but captures the same horror of war, with limbs hung every which way on barbed wire. The light source in this image comes out of the ground in the center, as if it is the violence itself that illuminates.

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But there are tons of great offerings from Kirchner and Nolde as well, all of which display their range. Nolde’s Hamburg Harbor, (1910) is so ethereal that his bold woodcut Fishing Steamer (1910) could never dock there. Kirchner’s people have faces that distort with the angular beauty of African masks, but sometimes his portraits curl within themselves like mazes, as is the case with Fanny Wocke (1916) and Dr. Ludwig Binswanger (1917/1918).

When it comes to contemporary artists, one comes away with the sense that more of them should be doing these styles of prints. There’s so much power and detail. Kerry James Marshall’s woodcut Untitled (Man) (2017 ) seems to writhe as he holds himself. I had the pleasure of seeing Eisenman’s triumphant Beer Garden (2012–2017) etching at Print Center New York last year. It’s big and chaotic, a Where’s Waldo for various kinds of decadence.

But they didn’t need to include contemporary artists to make all this feel fresh. The older works’ intensity makes them always vital, no matter who’s in office.

The Anxious Eye: German Expressionism and Its Legacy” is on view at The National Gallery of Art through May 27.

‘The Anxious Eye’ Showcases the Legacy and Modern-Day Relevance of German Expressionism

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