Violent Art: On Learning to Shudder
This Thanksgiving, my grandmother told the one about being driven through the streets of Munich by a German civilian chauffeur at the start of the Allied occupation. At the time, her husband was chief of the American constabulary in Munich.
“What’s that smell?” she asked as they hit rank air.
Her chauffeur answered in English: “Human bodies.”
I’d heard the story before. When my grandfather was alive he used to smack his palm on the table, shake his head and say either, “That damn driver should have kept his mouth shut” or, “I never should have brought you there!”
He wanted to shelter her, of course, from the war’s underside, and he never stopped trying. He nearly succeeded. With me he was luckier. The war stories he told were nearly always funny, carefully ironic. His battalion had liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp, but the old man wouldn’t talk about it, even at the end of his life. He’d rather die than tell his family back home what it all looked and smelled like. He encouraged me to read widely, to see museums and to travel, but he also sheltered me as much as he could from the saddest things in this life and from what he had seen of them.
I grew up in a strange New England town. Back when Norwich was a textile giant, the city fathers had stocked a three-story museum with scores of Greek and Roman cast statues. There were hardly any visitors in the upstairs galleries, which made them a great place to think. I used to spend time writing there during the ‘90’s recession: local plants scaling down and threatened with closures, the town’s annual summer fair in its final year.
And here I was among all these statues, all the sad heroics, shining the brighter for outliving their epochs. This, to me, was what art was and what it did: it inspired reflection, but in a way I could willingly turn away from whenever I liked.
Then, when I moved to Boston at seventeen, I spent long afternoons soaking in the Sargents at the Gardner, the Coles at the MFA. I liked my paintings beautiful. When the museums shut at five I’d walk home though the Fens while the sun set, happy to be alive in a world so lovely. The old masters in the gallery upstairs were full of horror and whimsy, but it was flush with humanism. Elsewhere, New York, say, my friends would chuckle and linger over little Klees and Mirós. But I knew what I liked: a Man Ray nude beat a Lucian Freud every day. And an old master beat a new trickster. I held out some exceptions, but not many.
As time proceeded my tastes expanded. I read a little theory and art history but not too much. On a recent trip through Chicago and the Mountain West I had the chance to be turned off by a lot of the conceptual art that seems to have returned full-strength (I actually bent to collect what I thought was a stray sock on a gallery floor in Denver, a rube to decontextualization). I was enchanted by a wall of sculpted apertures like toothy trilobites and a tower of mullein-stalks like a high rise of seed pods, and I looked at them for close to an hour. Was I struck by them? Or just interested in what it was getting at, or impressed by the artist’s talent, or trying to get to the bottom of it? Maybe, since I knew the artist, I was looking for the person I knew in the art … what part of her had I so obviously missed?
In her book-length essay Art Objects, Jeanette Winterson writes about seeing “a painting that had more power to stop me than I had power to walk on.” But, of course, she’s writing about the unapologetically beautiful Massimo Rao, even whose moons seem wise and aging epicenes and who cannot paint a frock without it be a wing. But was it possible to be moved by work that was deliberately crude, ugly, or violent? Klee? Beckmann? For my friends it was, but I couldn’t seem to connect with the stuff myself. As a kid, I shied away from bloody comic books. They were just a violent release, right? I’d condescended that the kids who went in for it wouldn’t be able to get a charge from non-violent stuff—that they were making big claims for something that just played into a negative emotion, fed it. This isn’t to say I can’t lip-service Francis Bacon and Hellraiser—but I’ve always felt pushed away from them … not that it was a failing in myself, but that my friends had an unhealthy fetish. I tried to hide the fact I didn’t share it.
For me, visual art became a question of what do I want to hang on my wall? And the more I wanted to own and hang and linger on a thing, the more I liked it.
Of course I know that ugly or deliberately crude or violent art can be a wise and even necessary response to ugly and violent events—there had to be a second Guernica, after the first—but I couldn’t help suspecting the one was somehow too like the other, that it drank to much of the same stuff, then proffered the cup. I couldn’t look at the famous Max Beckmann self-portrait without feeling he was somehow partially culpable for the horror and decay his image seemed composed of, and that in depicting it he was embracing it. The horror of history must be taught, yes, and documented, photographed. We must read and listen and feel the creep of that fear and steel ourselves and bawl over it in private. But doesn’t hanging a painting that evokes a powerful evil help to keep that evil alive?
I spent a few hours in Harvard Square last week, poking through the Fogg museum, getting a last look at everything before it got packed into storage (the Fogg’s shutting down in a few months, eventually to re-open in a new space). I wanted to see everything one last time—who knows how long I’ll live in Boston?—and so wound up in the Busch-Reisinger wing, the 20th century German art.
If I’d been there a few weeks earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have been struck by the same paintings in the same way. But the year had not been the best of my life and as I watched people close to me get hurt or sick, I kept stumbling into account after account of pure horror—and from the usual sources: an article about renewed Congo violence (so I bought and read King Leopold’s Ghost), pictures of a grinning president with wounded troops, troops whose faces have been burned messily off, radio news about a woman not far from Boston who’d carried her sister’s small children into oncoming traffic. I couldn’t ignore it. It’s two years now since my grandfather died and I miss him more than I could have imagined. No one stands between me and the world.
All this was on my mind as I moved down the halls of the Fogg, past the Gilbert Stuart portraits (everyone in his stuff looks a little bit like George Washington: old ladies, lapdogs) and through the glass doors of the Busch-Reisinger. There was some early German neo-classicism right up front, which I liked. Disappointingly, I had the same reaction to Käthe Kollwitz that I seem to always have. I felt a smudge of the grief she was trying to communicate—who wouldn’t?—but I could not read any deeper. I don’t know why. The sculpture was too simple, even crude. Yes, that’s it, like a child describing grief. I knew I was wrong about this but I didn’t know to what degree or how to make it right.
And the next thing I saw was a Paul Klee. It was no Twittering Machine. Painted seventeen years later, with Hitler’s war underway, Hot Pursuit uses the language of cave art to shock the viewer with violence. Stick-figure animals (and fragments of animals) frame two central figures: on the right, a stick-figure man with a bow and arrow (clearly and perfectly suggested by only three or four brush-strokes) fires straight ahead into what is probably the figure of another man. The action is a little confused—these are stick figures—and open to a few interpretations, but in the first shock of looking (I had never seen this painting before) I was frozen in space.
Discussion of cave art is ripe country for bullshit and the mind moves too quickly for its associations to sound unpretentious, but here is roughly what I thought at the time, translated more coherently and completely than quick thoughts can be: the figure is red surrounded in red, red of the flushed face, blood…….. standing out against the wall’s blue the cave-artists painted no human murder…….. but they merged man and animal, prey and predator…….. could the second stick figure be part animal?…….. is he also holding a bow…….. yes, they were hunting together…….. that deer in the background is real…….. it was an accident…….. but if it was an accident, why is the killer so red…….. thy brother’s blood a bird above is drawn like a deer only minus legs…….. we’re just like the deer, only our tinker-toys have been arranged differently…….. killers, we are red, flushed…….. is that a broken bicycle in the foreground, or another dead man? (partial, charred, like German photographs of the Allied bombings, like…)…….. the cave walls were not a transcript of the daylight but a dream…….. this is the dream of death…….. and it’s 1939 and they’ll wake to death…….. the killer has hard eyes
It was late 2007, and if I’d been slapped in the face, I couldn’t have been more awake. But it’s wrong to say a successful work of art acts on the viewer like a slap in the face—it acts like a slap you automatically assent to … and one that shocks but doesn’t pass away. Klee here had solidified some of my thinking about violence, about the imagined past, about our relationship to the natural world; by deliberately limiting his vocabulary he’d made it affecting. I’ve seen reproductions of Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes my whole life, but it has never made me think deeply about violence, only about character—the individual human characters of his subjects. Klee’s Hot Pursuit embodied everything I thought I couldn’t connect with: it was unbeautiful, violent, crude; but by breaking his language down to a few slashes (cunningly, and cunningly blending color), Klee had brought me to the uncanny, made me uncomfortably at home.
Klee couldn’t be called an expressionist, but plenty of the artists in the Busch-Reisinger can, and of exactly the school that I’d always shied away from. But it isn’t just expressionism; in the past, most 20th century German art had seemed like a cipher to me, and a harsh, sadistic one. Confronting a German expressionist-influenced painter from the first half of the century, I can’t help but think of the hopelessly sad and hateful decades when Germany suicide-bombed most of Europe. Max Beckmann seems to invoke this, or presage it. So does George Grosz, his martial bogeyman barking orders out of burning skulls. So I didn’t expect to linger in the Busch-Reisinger, but as it turned out I stayed there for over an hour, my attention torn between the Paul Klee and the Max Beckmann on the opposite wall; I walked back and forth from one to the other.
Dancing in Baden-Baden depicts a ghoulish ballroom where luxuriant spa patrons waltz with malevolent eyes. I’d just read Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, so the upper-class world of resort towns in the twenties was still fresh for me. Germany, Beckmann’s home, would have been in economic disarray in 1922 when he painted Baden-Baden. The resort town, on the other hand, was rolling. Here the cream of Europe would come. And although Beckmann couldn’t have known exactly what would happen to Germany in the next twenty years, he knew all about the first World War, he clearly knew what mankind could be like, what it could hoard and wring.
Those of us who are uncomfortable around art that evokes brutality too well are perhaps afraid of it more than we’d care to admit. It’s powerful and haunting, often far more haunting than the beautiful sort. The old masters were great hands at horror, but they remembered – as Auden famously noted– to include “someone else eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” in a world where “dogs go on with their doggy life”; Dancing in Baden-Baden is not like that. Here the canvas is filled with faces and those faces are filled with malice, frustration, pride, suspicion and contempt. In the past I might have frowned over it – surely life is more complex than this! Where are the dogs and their doggy lives? Why wouldn’t the artist evoke his characters with more care, sketching warring and complex emotions onto more life-like faces? Why so angry? But Beckmann did not want us to look at a dog. Beckman wanted us to look at the withered hearts of Baden-Baden, a world made rich on violence.
According to the museum placard the painting had been featured at a Nazi exhibition of degenerate art. Beckmann paid a high price for showing these kinds of paintings in a Nazi state. The painting represented a truth of its time… and it is as far from Nazi propaganda as it is possible to get.
Klee helped me to read Beckmann: crudity and simplicity no longer seemed childish. This is art meant to assail. The crush of faces Beckmann painted makes it hard for the viewer’s eye to settle down—I looked almost frantically from one to the other, each less appealing than the last. This is revulsion, yes, but for a good reason. A real person standing where the viewer is positioned would have been claustrophobic in the extreme, and alone, and afraid. And that’s as it should be.
Here a man with the empty pomp of a cartoon headwaiter waltzes a woman so cold her eyes are almost dead (I dare anyone to look at them for long). As in hieroglyphics, faces are flattened and distorted. The hands of the dancers touch at the fingertips but don’t embrace. This is very much the world of The Good Soldier, and it is a cold one which eventually wrought real horror. Through all of Beckmann’s distortion, the reality of that time and place came across to me of a piece with his abhorrence. And I shared in it.
When my grandfather was a boy in the ’30s his neighbor used to harvest songbirds in nets and sell them on skewers, roasted. Songbirds! And this is the world I wandered through, watching light glance off windows at evening thinking Beautiful, how beautiful! And it was. It is. But the heart of that beauty bears a seed as bitter as it is inescapable. After my Grandfather’s battalion discovered the Ohrdurf camp, he drove into town to fetch the Burhgermeister and his wife and tour them through the reality of what they’d been provisioning. That night they went home and hanged themselves. Fifty years later, he toured me through my hometown’s Greek and Roman cast gallery, explaining the myths, always keeping an eye on me when I wandered away too far. He wanted to raise me in a world that didn’t need paintings of horror, and maybe he believed he could. He buried the horror in himself and faced ahead, looking to me as if to a better world.
But down the street from that museum lived a Vietnam veteran who had only just started drinking seriously. I know him slightly, and through the intervening years the alcohol he takes and takes has coaxed his insides out onto his skin. You can’t look at him without knowing he is a man in pain. Drunk and wild-eyed, he is the picture of George Grosz’s The Survivor. And my shock at first seeing the picture (in a history book last week) was one of recognition. And my long hour in the Busch-Reisinger is what equipped me to keep looking, to trust the artist, and not to let my fear of ugliness make me any more blind.
I know Beckmann’s dancers from books, and I know Klee’s stick figures from what I know of life. The result of my encounter at the Busch-Reisinger is that I know now that I know them, and I know to listen.
Of course I can look at Sargent and Cole all I like, and I will, and it will never be a lie unless I refuse, ever, to look at Beckmann, Klee, Grosz, and their successors. The world needs art from every angle. And I am still learning.
John Cotter is author of Under the Small Lights, a novel.