PRINT January 2007


With its unflinching portrayals of villainous politicians, maimed veterans, sex-trade casualities, and rapacious tycoons, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s” presents a riveting picture of a troubled time unnervingly resonant with our own. For art historian GRAHAM BADER, these images betray the signs of an intensifying subjugation of biology to politics, with implications for how the state—and artists—approach the human body today.

WHOEVER IS DESIGNING the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s signage must have a wry sense of humor. How else to explain the recent pairing of a gaudily made-up transvestite and a sternly elegant Greek god in the museum’s ancient art galleries, where a fortuitously placed sign directing visitors to “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s” makes it appear as if the looming cross-dresser from a 1927 painting by Christian Schad is sneaking up to peck the marble Hermes at her side? Situated immediately outside “Glitter and Doom”’s entrance, and thus serving as a kind of quasi-preface to the show as a whole, this unlikely encounter sums up two millennia of Western art as a story of gender-swapping and the flirting of past and present, with the human countenance at its heart. More specifically, the meeting highlights the necessarily political dimension of any representation of the human form. For just as the serene grandeur of Hermes’s visage stands as a striking emblem of Periclean Athens’s foundational democratic strivings (even if the object at hand is a later Roman copy), so the painted-on face of Schad’s transvestite, appropriately taken as “Glitter and Doom”’s signal image, speaks volumes about Weimar Germany’s own uncertain testing of the democratic framework first established in Greece over two thousand years before.

Curated by the Met’s Sabine Rewald, “Glitter and Doom” features more than a hundred paintings and drawings—overwhelmingly portraits—by artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, which briefly flourished in mid-1920s Germany by returning to traditional pictorial technique and genres: still life, landscape, and portraiture, most often carefully crafted in oil on canvas or wood panel. As its catalogue is quick to declare, the show’s focus is on the left-leaning Verist wing of Neue Sachlichkeit practice, foregoing the tame society portraits and classicizing views also associated with the term. And, indeed, the radical heterogeneity of the exhibition’s human assembly belies the uneasy traditionalism of its works’ pictorial means. Full of mutilated war veterans, withered prostitutes, destitute proletarians, and wizened bourgeois, “Glitter and Doom”—whose real star, with more than fifty works present, is Otto Dix—calls attention not just to the politics of bodily representation but to the human body itself as the vessel on which political power unleashes its most brutal force.

For those who have surveyed the exhibition’s motley faces and alternately ragged and fleshy physiques, it will come as no surprise that the specific discourses of biopolitics—on topics from public sport to birth control—took center stage in Weimar Germany as perhaps nowhere before, nor that the ideas behind these discussions inevitably cut both ways: Proponents of sexual liberalization, for instance, included both those committed to “natural” sex and those motivated to protect the “genetic stock” of the nation. Above all, as German historian Detlev J. K. Peukert has written, the era witnessed a process by which “[r]ules about what was natural, normal and healthy in the most intimate areas of life . . . came [to be] stamped with the legitimizing authority of science.”1The conflicted nature of this enterprise is front and center in Dix’s 1921 portrait of the Düsseldorf urologist Hans Koch, whose scarred face and sinister-looking instruments (appliquéd with silver foil to intensify their metallic menace) lend him the air of a torturer preparing for duty. Indeed, Dix playfully positions Koch’s red rubber catheter to suggest both the prosthetic replacement and abject dysfunction of the male sexual organ itself. And the worst, we know, was yet to come: Looking at Schad’s careful rendering of the upside-down rib cage and brown skin of the fairground performers known respectively as Agosta the “Winged One” and Rasha the “Black Dove,” or at Dix’s dramatic representation of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim’s monumental nose, we can’t help but see these figures’ imminent doom in the very particularity of their bodies themselves.

Viewed through this lens, the Met show forms a perfect continuum with the Museum of Modern Art’s recently closed Dada exhibition, with which it shares a handful of artists and a pair of works (Dix’s Skat Players, 1920, and George Grosz’s Gray Day, 1921). For as the earlier show made clear—particularly in its superior installation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—Dada was born out of the bodily horrors of World War I, the scarred and maimed veterans of which roamed German streets for decades to follow. In its Berlin incarnation, as Brigid Doherty has written, Dada represented a kind of collective dissection of the German people, its fragmented montages and see-through bodies comprising what one visitor to Berlin’s 1920 Dada Fair described as “an anatomical museum, in which you can behold yourself dissected, not just arm and leg, but head and heart. Not only your very own body, but that of all of you collectively.”2 If this dissecting urge seems far removed from the tradition-minded technique and iconography that dominate “Glitter and Doom” (the remarkably complex collage of crippled veterans in Dix’s Skat Players being something of an anomaly at the Met), the exhibition’s selection nevertheless extends and arguably intensifies Dada’s anatomical operation—suggesting not an aesthetic strategy but an entire culture driven by an ongoing cycle of corporeal assault, inscription, experimentation, and decomposition. Witness the numbed stare of the prostitute in Rudolf Schlichter’s Margot, 1924, or the gruesomely defaced soldiers of Dix’s In Memory of the Glorious Time, 1923, or the parade of sunken chests, scarred cheeks, bulging veins, and hunched backs across “Glitter and Doom”’s walls. Can we really say such figures and images, as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh argued in his seminal 1981 polemic “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” seek to create “a unity and totality which conceals its historical determination and conditioned particularity”?3 For all their formal anachronisms, don’t they in fact diagram the very historical particularity and determination of the body itself?

History’s determinative force, of course, culminated in the years immediately following those surveyed in “Glitter and Doom,” and the exhibition, like Buchloh’s essay, is haunted by their specter. We all know the story. In the aesthetic realm, naked male warriors would replace badly made-up transvestites, as Arno Breker’s steroidal fantasies were forced to do double duty, serving as both model Aryan knights and obscenely hypertrophic stand-ins for the millions of bodies on whose eradication the Nazi state was built. The camps in which this slaughter took place, Giorgio Agamben has argued, constitute the paradigmatic space of modern biopolitics itself. For it was within their gates that the modern state’s newfound focus on the natural life of its political subjects—the project of biopower so thoroughly traced by Michel Foucault—reached its fullest and most obscene culmination. Their path laid by the Nazi regime’s institution of a permanent “state of exception,” which allowed for the suspension of individual rights in the ostensible service of public security, the camps realized a space “in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation.”4

Agamben himself made headlines in 2004 by turning down a visiting professorship at New York University rather than submit to biometric measurements newly required of many US visitors, pro- testing that the collection of such compulsory data had reached the point that “humanity itself . . . has become the dangerous class.”5 In Agamben’s formulation, these new border requirements not only implied the veritable criminalization of everybody, but, in effecting this process through the bureaucratized management of biological information, they mimicked the convergence of a permanent state of exception and the political mobilization of “bare life”—the simple material fact of living in a body—that had enabled and powered the camps. Nowhere is the urgency of such concerns more forcefully evinced than in the recently released video of the military detention of Brooklyn-born, onetime dirty-bomb suspect Jose Padilla. A US citizen nevertheless labeled, according to the logic of the “war on terror,” an enemy combatant, Padilla was detained without formal charges and held in complete isolation and darkness for nearly four years. Now facing much-reduced criminal charges in the federal court system after legal pressure forced the end of his indefinite military detainment—or, to call it what it was, his extended period of torture—Padilla appears so psychologically damaged that he can no longer even stand trial. In the videotape documenting one short episode of his military detention, he is shown on his way to a root canal down the hall from his cell, wearing blackout goggles and noise-blocking headphones, thereby being prevented from experiencing even briefly anything outside himself, outside his merest existence as bare life, wholly at the whim of the state.

Padilla and his goggles are admittedly far removed from the Neue Sachlichkeit faces with which this article began. But as Agamben so forcefully reminds us, the biopolitical continuum that leads from Weimar concerns with sex and hygiene to the current administration’s reliance on never-ending detention is not so circuitous, for the specific aporia of modern democracy, he writes, is that its concern with the biological conditions of its political subjects transpires on precisely the same terrain, that of bare life, as the most violent subjection of which sovereign power is capable. In this sense, is it not perfectly appropriate that the most intensely politicized images of our day—from those of Terri Schiavo’s comatose body to those of the tortured and murdered inmates of Abu Ghraib—concern precisely the state’s role in authoring the most basic experiences of life and death, and that biopolitical concerns—from stem-cell research to abortion rights—dominate one election cycle after another? If “the totalitarianism of our century has its ground in [the] dynamic identity of life and politics,” as Agamben has written, it’s a situation we seem to have embraced with open arms.6

Schiavo and Abu Ghraib, of course, won’t be on most people’s minds as they make their way through “Glitter and Doom.” But other contemporary figures and images surely will be. Can we help but think of the shattered bodies returning from—and littered across—Iraq when we see Dix’s horribly disfigured veterans and read, in an accompanying wall label, of attempts to keep them off the streets for fear of the public disturbance they might cause? And is there any better portrait of America’s own compliant news media and craven political class than Grosz’s Pillars of Society, 1926, with its shit-for-brains parliamentarian and chamber-pot-wearing journalist? And, indeed, are galleries from New York to Los Angeles not filled once again with carefully crafted figure studies whose anachronistic styling puts even Dix and Schad to shame?

“Glitter and Doom,” in fact, has overlapped with two shows of such contemporary practice just around the corner from the Met. The very week of its opening saw the closing of a Lisa Yuskavage show at Zwirner & Wirth and the inauguration of John Currin’s debut at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue space. Currin’s and Yuskavage’s figures contrast fundamentally with those at the museum, for all their shared art-historical troping and caricatural wit. Most crucially, they lack the stench of putrefaction that fills “Glitter and Doom”’s galleries: Their lithe and slickly waxen bodies appear not to be wasting away, but rather hypertrophically expanding, their elongated torsos and ballooning breasts near bursting. More Arno Breker, we could say, than Dix and Schad—and in this, perfect figures for the culture of the Hummer and “shock and awe.” If “Glitter and Doom” confronts us with both the body’s abject materiality and the political force that is inevitably brought to bear on it, Currin’s and Yuskavage’s figures appear devoid of biological matter and political life alike. Virtual figures for a synthetic time, they diagram power’s wish that its hold over—and effectuation through—the material body be forgotten. “Glitter and Doom”’s shattered and ragged faces put an immediate halt to any such forgetting—as does the broken figure of Jose Padilla, shuffling to the dentist down the hall from his cell.

“Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s” remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Feb. 19.

Graham Bader is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in the department of art history and archaeology at Columbia University.


1. Detlev J. K. Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, trans. Richard Deveson (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), p. 102.

2. Ernst Cohn-Wiener, “Große Monstre Dada-Schau,” Neue Berliner Zeitung, July 6, 1920. As cited in Brigid Doherty, “Figures of the Pseudorevolution,” October 84 (Spring 1998): 75.

3. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 54. Emphasis Buchloh.

4. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 171.

5. See Karen W. Arenson, “In Protest, Professor Cancels Visit to the US,” New York Times, January 17, 2004, p. B4.

6. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 148.