To Have Squeezed the Universe Into a Ball

To Have Squeezed the Universe Into a Ball:
German Expressionism at MoMA

by David Gibbs

The exhibit, German Expressionism: Works From the Collection, at the Museum of Modern Art takes the viewer through the transition of early twentieth century Europe, with its curiosity and reliance on the seedy undercurrent of society; its prostitution, drinking, and cajoling, to the trauma of World War I and its chaotic aftermath. Mood shifts sharply, in this mixed media show, from praise and adolescent sexual excitement to a resigned bareness as the dark, yet sprightly atmosphere, dims, revealing its underlying misery, portrayed by disfigurement, rage, and a hopeless sunken-ness of faces and figures. In paintings and illustrations, hair thins and crooks, cut short in its wildness, as optimism flinches so decisively, and dismissively, that it dissolves for the duration of the movement.

Franz Marc’s pre-war woodcut, Fantastic Creature, from the illustrated book, The Blue Rider, gently persuades the viewer of the vitality of daydreams. A lean animal, yellow with grey stripes poses, its features flat and mellow. In the background, a rock draws the viewer’s attention with its height and color. The tone of red, along with its three green spots resemble a strawberry turned upside-down, with two green leaves growing out if its peak. The terrain lumps, wrinkly, like knuckles with a strong shadow adorning the upper crest. Its shade even resembles a pale skin. If it were not for the creature, the landscape would echo an underwater setting with its soft edges that hint at a slow delicate tide. The tenderness implies a welcoming of the imagination and of the pleasures of creativity. The stokes are smooth and without tension. Color is emphasized for its enjoyment. The lack of details suggests a meditation with space, even an allowance for investigation. The character of the piece is hopeful, even juvenile, in its ease.

In Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s painting Street, Berlin and Erich Heckel’s Franci, prostitutes take the foreground as models, but with hardly a distinction of their profession; it is the accompanying text from either museum or artist that clarifies the women’s social positions. This emphasis implies that a curiosity surrounding the taboo of their vocation still exists now as it did then, and that pointing it out will excite something forbidden in viewers, and will create an interest to see them as objects of beauty and desire.

While this elevation of infatuation stimulates viewers, the artists are cautious not to “prostitute” them. Eroticism is pushed aside to stress the tension between voyeurism and exhibitionism. Men look, and obviously the artists’ looked, and now we look at the intimate displays of sexual and social values. It is as if the artists want the viewers to ask themselves why they are attracted to the art; whether it is observational, lustful, empathetic, or out of disgust. They want the viewer to have to express something of themselves, something perhaps they did not realize. And this is the urge of Expressionism, a release (and perhaps relief) of unbearable emotions. It is mindfulness so tender, in its spectrum of enjoyment to melancholy, that it stings when kept silent.

No doubt a mind so sensitive could be crushed so brutally by war. The elongated eyes that restricted empathy and sadness, it seems, to a soft watery stare grow hard and alien in battle. The illustrations of Otto Dix depict shadowy heaps wearing gas masks, hands filled with grenades. Colorful swirls are substituted for dark ink blots, as if black blood forced out of arteries. Gestures are frozen in action. Slaughter rivets the viewer in this frightening series as bodies lose their vigor. Flesh becomes bone. Skin becomes uniforms and dirt, suggesting trenches running through each body. Things bloat. Eyes shrink. The images hardly encourage the viewer to think struggle, victory, or even a philosophy of death straying too far from a dull acceptance of its emptiness. All vibrations melt to slim shimmers.

George Grosz’s Explosion mixes the geometric slivers of Cubism with the bright hues of early Expressionism, as if straining for a balance between them. The affect is layered and overwhelming, mimicking the citizen’s scramble as all around them gleams fiery in a red brilliance the color of meat. Tall buildings and factories burst and topple. Bricks stop in mid-flight. Smokestacks billow like a canon’s fire. The source of light and darkness, cutting the cubist angles, come from the windows of burning buildings, drawing one’s fragmented focus from the people crammed into the canvas’s corner to the explosion itself, as if suggesting this mentality an outcome of war. What vibrant colors that were reserved for people pre-war, now enhance the dehumanization taking place. Detail is now allowed for industry and mayhem, while people are split and reduced to abstract.

The emphasis of business and economic interests intensifies as post-war art is used for rhetoric against both communists and capitalists. Often, capitalists are depicted as fat, dumb-witted, and sinister, while communism is portrayed as a vehicle of starvation and chaotic mob violence. Each side cries oppression, and each side shows skeletons and hangings as sad consequences for supporting the opposition. In one illustration, business men have picked up the guns of dead soldiers to continue the war in the streets. They huddle in a blown out bunker, like generals forced to fight alone at the end of a gruesome battle. The final mood is grim and satirical, as if each cruel joke had fought alongside each soldier, hardening to a near indifference on the front lines.

German Expression: Works From the Collection finishes its three month run at MoMA on July, 11. For more information and pictures of the work, go to


David Gibbs is a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. His poetry has been published, or is forthcoming, in the Columbia Poetry Review, CutBank, Nimrod, and other journals. He is an editor at The New York Quarterly and the Graduate Coordinator of the Prison Writing Program at the PEN American Center. Additionally, between July and October, he will perform, alongside other artists, Roman Ondak’s performance art piece, Good Feelings in Good Times, at The New Museum. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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