LOS ANGELES — “The ugly, the strange, and the gruesome.” The phrase introduces Reexamining the Grotesque: Selections from the Robert Gore Rifkind Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and serves as a kind of working definition of the grotesque, a concept that’s shape-shifted its way through art history for centuries.
The text on LACMA’s website goes on to describe the grotesque as “a persistent undercurrent in German art of the early 20th century.” The exhibition itself, tucked away in a small room within the museum’s modern art galleries, features prints, drawings, and illustrated publications by artists associated with German Expressionism and New Objectivity.
The Rifkind Center, LACMA’s expansive and often under-utilized collection of German modern prints and drawings, is a treasure trove of the ugly, strange, and gruesome, but the question this show raises is what distinguishes this “grotesque” from any number of artworks in the adjacent galleries — for instance, Cubism’s faceted women, who savagely reify what Mikhail Bakhtin called the “partitioned body” of the grotesque; Giacometti’s quivering, attenuated bodies; or the weathered, almost anthropomorphic chair and lamp of Edward Kienholz’s “The Illegal Operation” (1962).
The closest it comes to an answer is war. World War I and its aftermath in the Weimar Republic are recurring themes, central enough to be cited in the introductory text, but not quite enough to cohere the exhibition. It’s a shame because the works that best exemplify a uniquely German grotesque, and a raison d’etre for this show, are those that reflect the war and Weimar years.
Among the most shocking is Otto Dix’s “House Destroyed by Aerial Bombs (Tournai),” one of three exhibited works from his 1924 etching portfolio War (Der Krieg). The print is a response to Goya’s Disasters of War etching series (1810–20), but Dix abandons the visual logic that underpinned Goya’s didactic images. Instead, he manipulates perspective to produce a vertiginous house of horrors. A mis en abyme of openings in the bombed-out building creates a dizzying effect, while bullet holes and bloody wounds form a constellation that connects the bodies.
The print’s emotional core is a small child killed by a head wound. Dix mitigates the gratuitous violence of even illustrating a dead child by situating the infant at the periphery, resting on a bare-breasted dead woman along the bottom edge. In the overall context of War, the mother and child are an indictment of war’s collateral damage; another dead child appears in the portfolio alongside a shell-shocked mother (not on view here).
Other works fit the grotesque theme but feel like afterthoughts or nods to big names (e.g., Kokoschka, Kirchner). And some pieces that call for context, like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “The Murderer” (1914) and Walter Gramatté’s “The Murder” (1925) — examples of the era’s vile “lustmord” genre — have no accompanying wall text; a text wouldn’t excuse the images, but it would make sense of their inclusion beyond the idea that femicide is obviously grotesque.
Some examples related to war are also stretches. George Grosz’s “Blood Is the Best Sauce” (1919) captures the acidity of the artist’s political caricatures, but it’s tame in comparison with viscerally grotesque cartoons like his “German Doctors Fighting the Blockade” (1918), and Otto Schubert’s “Ration Carriers 1” (1917) is a more or less straightforward illustration of a wartime ration carrier. More problematic are the inclusion and juxtaposition of Conrad Felixmüller’s angular “Soldier in a Madhouse 2” (1918) and Dix’s borderline-cartoonish “Skin Graft (Transplantation)” from War.
The wall text fails to clarify whether viewers are meant to see the subjects — a veteran with PTSD and one with a disfiguring facial wound, respectively — as grotesque or question their characterization as such by the artists and Weimar viewing public (presumably the latter). It also aligns physical and psychological wounds, within the context of the grotesque, without addressing either the vast difference between the two — e.g., the different types of abuses they suffered at the hands of the government, medical establishment, and bourgeois public — or the sociopolitical consequences of seeing them as grotesque, then and now.
After the war, many veterans with facial injuries were hidden from public view in out-of-the-way hospitals, and some were reported as dead to their families; antiwar activist Ernst Friedrich detailed this in his 1924 photo book War Against War, which includes photos on which Dix drew for images like “Skin Graft.” In contrast, PTSD sufferers were frequently on full public view as “invisible” wounds left many ineligible for state assistance, and as a result, destitute and unhoused. In both cases, featuring the images in a show on the grotesque risks exploiting the men all over again. (As an aside, the joint wall text might have mentioned that Felixmüller taught Dix the etching technique he used in War.)
These issues are relatively minor, however, compared to the gift of seeing the artworks in person. The show is too easy to miss, wedged between sprawling galleries filled with the giants of Euro-American Modernism. A small Cubism show in the next room at least gets a prominent wall label — the title is barely noticeable in this one. But as the best works bend reality toward the bizarre, they reflect the world’s perpetual cycle of disasters like a hall of mirrors. Georg Scholz’s satirical “Industrial Farmers” (1920), a smaller lithograph of his 1920 painting, is the political grotesque at its subversive sharpest: a family portrait of Weimar Germany’s profiteering farmers, it monstrously inverts the “noble peasant” trope. That it was made more than a century ago reaffirms that cynicism and exploitation are cornerstones of modernity.
In terms of Germany and WWI, all roads lead to Dix, who served throughout the war’s four years and returned to it over and over in his art. “Dead Man in the Mud,” from War, is everything that the exhibition promises: ugly, in its portrayal of a body trapped in the relentless mud of the trenches; strange, in the man’s uncanny slippage between volume and flatness, body and skeleton, sleep and death; and gruesome, most of all because Dix saw it in the flesh.
Reexamining the Grotesque: Selections from the Robert Gore Rifkind Collection continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles) through March 5. The exhibition was organized by the museum.