Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

The average person might not immediately associate the Germanic sensibility with a propensity to laugh, but that was precisely Charles Baudelaire’s argument in the 1850s when he singled out Germany as a nation where “all is weighty, profound and excessive” and which was therefore particularly suited to the grotesque, a genre that, he said admiringly, inspires “immediate laughter.” Featuring work by a wide variety of modern and contemporary German-speaking artists, from Arnold Böcklin to John Bock, “Grotesque! 130 Years of Witty Art” put the poet’s theory to the test. Clearly, the mode of grotesque comedy—what Baudelaire called the “absolute comic”—had enough practitioners in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland to develop an absurdist strain in modernism (and through to today) alongside the more familiar rational and stable one.

Indeed, while exhibition curator Pamela Kort notes in the show’s informative catalogue that until the late nineteenth century the grotesque had typically been associated with the dark and demonic, her selection teased out the genre’s more overtly jocular side, with the playful fantasy of Böcklin’s paintings providing her starting point. Among them, Kentaur in der Dorfschmiede (Centaur at the Village Blacksmith), 1888, displays a tension fundamental to the grotesque as a centaur shows his bum hoof to a blacksmith while ordinary villagers look on: The human and the monstrous collide, and an otherwise common event is defamiliarized. The Swiss-German artist was frequently attacked in the press, receiving an especially damaging posthumous assessment in 1905 by the influential critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who saw Böcklin’s clash of opposites as symptomatic of a culture in chaos—a criticism Kort asserts was persistent in the denigration of the grotesque throughout the twentieth century.

The exhibition’s best moments occurred in the first rooms, which focused on the early modern grotesque. Emil Nolde’s pre-Brücke “laughing giant” mountains and Alfred Kubin’s pastel-and-gouache Das Wesen vom Mars (The Creature from Mars), ca. 1906, highlighted the grotesque’s promotion of the outlandish. A shift within the galleries to a more explicit brand of humor began with Thomas Theodor Heine’s bronze sculpture Der Teufel (The Devil), 1902–1903, a lumbering monstrosity that Heine created, along with its famous red-dog mascot, for the Munich-based satiric periodical Simplicissimus. (The publication, founded in 1896, targeted Wilhelmine Germany’s philistinism.) The many stunning drawings and prints by Lyonel Feininger, Paul Scheerbart, and Paul Klee offered a gold mine of material—some of the most inventive, and underrecognized, work ever produced in the region.

Kort also devoted much attention to the trenchant satire of the Berlin Dadaists. In Raoul Hausmann’s 1920 Selbstporträt des Dadasophen (Self-Portrait of the Dadasoph), the mismatched anatomical parts—part organic, part mechanical—hardly hold together to compose a body. The powerful social critique practiced during this notorious period (the flip side to Meier-Graefe’s pre–World War I dismissal of the grotesque) persisted in post–World War II Vienna, undertaken first by the Wiener Gruppe in the early to mid-’50s and then by the Actionists in the ’60s. Whatever claims for a postwar resumption of normalcy might have been made by optimistic politicians in 1958, Gerhard Rühm and Oswald Wiener’s series of photo-and-text montages from that year, called Kind und Welt (Child and World), could shatter anyone’s sense of renewed national health. Photographs of weightlifters, fashionable women, and Catholic leaders jostle against images of horribly deformed infants. At this point in the show, the boundaries of the genre are challenged, since, as Robert Storr remarks in a catalogue essay, the grotesque is inherently unnatural, excluding “genetic anomalies,” presumably even when incongruously paired with images of physical well-being.

This move toward categorical confusion was exacerbated as the exhibition approached our contemporary era, and appearing in place of grotesque comedic shock was its domestication, in which everyday objects are estranged from their intended use. Sigmar Polke’s pleasingly pathetic display of kinetic art in Kartoffelmaschine (Potato Machine), 1969, combines nature with artifice, enhancing the banal through mock elevation. The photographs in Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s series “Stiller Nachmittag, Equilibres” (Quiet Afternoon, Equilibrium), 1984–85, balance vegetables and household items in teetering configurations. The grotesque is still clever and captivating but now relatively benign, perhaps signaling an appropriate leveling out of this often overwrought genre as it blends into culture rather than clashing with it. Unfortunately, no curatorial explanation of grotesque categories from the late ’60s onward was offered in the wall texts, giving the impression that virtually any evocation of the peculiar and unknown could qualify (here the catalogue helped rescue the show).

With John Bock’s and Jonathan Meese’s contributions, the show finally descended into pointless wackiness. In Bock’s Marlit, 2003, a mobile, jerry-rigged trolley hangs from a set of tracks bolted to the ceiling, while colorful liquids and puppets descend toward the floor; nonsense utterances emanate from a person above (who is sometimes Bock, sometimes an assistant). By the time one reached the last room, containing Meese’s cluttered goth-porn sculptural ensemble, all the wonder and surprise of the previous fin de siècle were gone. What was once unfamiliar is now all too familiar. Were these two younger artists, the only ones shown, truly the best representation of the contemporary regional grotesque? Bock’s manic but empty antics paled in comparison with the hilarious characters of the performer Karl Valentin, whose early twentieth-century films were on view in a separate room. Similarly, Meese’s muddled commentary on our society’s obsessions with sex and death didn’t equal the brilliantly simple painting of a skeleton peeing into a lake by Max Klinger (Der pinkelnde Tod [Death Peeing], ca. 1900). Baudelaire rightly argued that the “absolute comic” required a degree of innocence to maintain its potent mixture of the strange and the common. Though an era frequently labeled as cynical may be less amenable to the grotesque, one hopes it still lies buried beneath the sheer proliferation of relatively unwitty stuff generated by the contemporary artists and is waiting to return with a vengeance.

Berlin-based critic Gregory Williams is a regular reviewer for Artforum.