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War and the Arts

At Busch-Reisinger Museum

By Lorenz Poppagianeris

War, its horror, despair, chaos and grief is bemoaned vehemently and emotionally at Busch-Reisinger's "War and Aftermath: German art in relation to the First World War." The Teutonic emotionalism of these artists' immediate reactions to terror makes the exhibition an important psychological document. The reactions themselves make it an historical record. Its value as art is a question apart.

Otto Dix, in his series of etchings "The War," (Der Krieg), transcends his subject's initial impact and there-by penetrates it. War's waste, fatigue and death become something mystical, even poetic. The starkness of his black-and-white tones produce an awareness far more effective than Kathe Kollwitz's unbounded sentimentality or Ernst Barlach's heavy-handed portrayal of heavy-handed destruction. And the transcendence involved is not emotional but aesthetic.

Kollwitz's mounrful cries of "Bread," "Unemployed" or "Killed in Action" cease to have meaning. The same brooding line is repeated again and again only to appear arbitrary, in expression of similarly histrionics. Beckmann creates and maintains his impact with far greatr lucidity. "The People, Cafe" and "Society, 1915," coherently relate a tale of human confusion and shock, a state of mind which, fortunately, does not engulf the artist despite his intensity of conviction.

The aesthetic criterion, however, is challenged most graphically by George Grosz. Sharp, biting, vitriolic, his satires often, as in "I Am The Boss," amount to a vulgar denial of aesthetics. Grosz succeeds in his attempt to revolt and disgust. His portrayals of lasciviousnes, corruption and wretchedness hit home with intended impact for they are executed in line and wash that are as sickly and depressing as their subjects.

It is indeed paradoxical that Kurt Schwitters, representing the Dada school, created in contemptuous revolt against established canons of aesthetics, should appear at Busch-Reisinger this month as a champion of those very values. Gathering bits and scraps of color and print in the form of collages, Schwitters manipulates a poetic play of shape and hue, charming, intimate, yet positive and aesthetically unequivocal. Paul Klee's lithograph, "Destruction and Hope," not his best in that form, sings out with more hope than destruction because it contains more poetry than pathos.

Judging from this exhibition one night imagine, that the schism between poetry and Strum and Drang lies in intensity of emotion or dramatic nature of the subject. Actually Goya's "Disasters of War," certainly more graphic than anything here, or Picasso's "Guernica," more symbolic and abstract than anything here, answer an emphatic no. For if Barlach, Kollwitz, Grosz, et al, utter an emotional cry from the blackness of chaos and confusion, it is Picasso and Goya who offer, with emotion disciplined. "right" and "inevitable," an answer which cannot help being true.

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