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A chilling portrait of Germany's Weimar era emerges in 'New Objectivity' at LACMA

"New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933," opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It's a tough show.

Tough as nails.

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You will clench your jaw as the 14 chaotic years between the cruel aftermath of World War I and Adolf Hitler's appointment as German chancellor unfolds. After you see it, you may need a stiff drink and a soft chair.

LACMA curator Stephanie Barron, a specialist in German Modern art, has brought together a thematic arrangement of 80 paintings and about 100 works on paper made by 54 Weimar Republic artists, plus several films. The show opens with images that chronicle the brutalized aftermath of combat, social destabilization from the sudden eradication of empire and the new realities of life in Germany's first, fraught, ultimately failed experiment with democracy.

Alienation is everywhere. Emblematic is Jeanne Mammen's grim "Chess Player." Four haggard people are crammed into a claustrophobic café setting, where measured moves on a chessboard substitute silent strategies of attack for convivial sociability.

But New Objectivity is not monolithic. Only sometimes does alienation manifest as negative social isolation.

Elsewhere it represents an affirmative distance. Penetrating insight can come from taking a step back to observe.

In a room of 10 still life paintings, the houseplants are not lovely lilies or jaunty sunflowers. They are potted succulents, prickly desert cactuses and rainforest rubber plants. None is native to Germany. Alien, exotic strangeness is on these artists' minds.

Herbert Ploberger arrays common objects on an ordinary dressing table, but his perfume bottle, scissors, collar and pins have the clinical aura of tools laid out on the operating table in a surgical suite. Hans Mertens' still life gives sharp focus to a trash can, broom, bucket and rags heaped in an inconspicuous corner.

Another room casts a gimlet eye on a subspecies of crime that would make Mariska Hargitay blanch. In the country's newly emerging tabloid press, Lustmord — sex murder — created a sensation. Disembowelment and death provided an erotic climax of unspeakable perversity.

The subject is shocking for paintings, prints, drawings and watercolors whose loose pigments visually bleed. The crime overlays sexual thrill atop the memory of unprecedented physical brutality in the Great War, in which millions were killed, millions more were maimed and an imperial legacy of social stability, real or imagined, was wiped away.

Further on, one wall thrums with barely contained alarm. It features six portraits of children, but it looks like a formal lineup at a local youth-offenders camp.

Forget boyish sentimentality and girlish playfulness. The young'uns are painted with focused concentration, bathed in clear light and without stylistic exaggeration. There is no jagged German Expressionist deformation of the human figure, no slashing lines or clashing colors.

The result will creep you out. These chilly youngsters, representatives of tomorrow's promise, may have escaped from the "Village of the Damned."

"Beware the stare that will paralyze the will of the world" went the ad copy to that 1960 horror movie. The line could have been written three decades earlier to describe the icy gaze in Kurt Gunther's remarkable "Portrait of a Boy."

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The staring boy's crossed arms are held tightly across his torso, a pose as coiled as the intricate weave of his patterned jersey. Gunther rendered the impeccably groomed lad against a mottled, blackish-green background, a contrast that makes his pale skin and blond hair virtually glow.

The glassy-eyed portrait is perhaps the most quietly haunted painting in a show already filled with nightshades. The brisk clarity of the picture seems somehow ruthless. And that is perhaps a key to the severe aesthetic that characterizes this stunning exhibition, one of the year's most powerful.

The artist is frank in showing his subject doing what the artist himself has done: Look straight at the world without blinking, damn the consequences. By implication, the same is expected of us.

New Objectivity has always been a movement difficult to describe. Perhaps that's because it is not a pictorial style. Rather, it is an attitude toward art and its relationship to the world.

Gunther may be unblinking in his excruciating, almost hyper-realist portrait. But so is George Grosz in his scathing — and stylistically very different — caricature of the Weimar era's political class.

His most famous painting is "Eclipse of the Sun," its orb blotted out not by the moon but by a dollar sign. He gathered a headless crew of empty suits around a table, where the bureaucrats dutifully assist a corpulent and gleeful President von Hindenburg and his fat-headed, arms manufacturing crony.

Even the term "New Objectivity" is conflicted. Coined as Neue Sachlichkeit in a 1925 exhibition organized by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, a museum director in Mannheim, the translation is often disputed.

Objectivity implies a certain lack of interpretive insight. So, convincingly proposed as a more accurate paraphrase is "matter-of-factness."

Cactus portraits, sex crime reportage, children, factory machinery, snow-covered landscapes — an attitude of just the facts, ma'am, can encompass a diverse range of subjects and styles.

New Objectivity was a sharp rebuke to the reigning ethos of German Expressionist art, where vigorous brushwork, vivid color and neo-Gothic forms are just about as style-conscious as style can get. The artists of both genres were roughly the same age, but the absence of a shared style among one cohort should be seen as subtly disputatious.

An implicit criticism of German Expressionism may also explain why sculpture is absent from this exhibition. Sculpture was vital to the mystical, totemic urges of the earlier art. New Objectivity, on the other hand, had no need of totems. It had the cold world of machines available — including cameras as a potent artistic tool.

The deadpan photographs of August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch catalog people, places and things, asserting the incontrovertible authenticity of stark visual facts. Whether the picture is of a tradesman, stacks of galvanized tin washtubs, a pastry cook or a wedge of cobbler's tools, it displays the world's sharply focused textures in an endless variety of exquisitely toned gradations of light.

The period's leading artist is the incomparable Max Beckmann, a hinge between Expressionism and New Objectivity, whose eye for piercing social insight is displayed in eight canvases. They include his famous tuxedo-clad self-portrait, in which a solidly middle-class guy from Leipzig crafts himself as an imposing, urbane artistic aristocrat.

He's closely followed by Grosz, whose automatons and caricatures typify today's visions of Weimar-era Berlin as somewhere between insistently free and inherently debauched; Otto Dix, a brilliant draftsman who often claimed credit for inventing New Objectivity (an overstatement, but not impossible to believe); and Christian Schad, whose astounding veristic skills transformed subjects like carnival performers into something that approaches magical realism.

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Schad lavishes the kind of artistic attention usually reserved for conventional beauties on a dual portrait of sideshow stars Agosta, the "pigeon-chested man," and Rasha, a snake dancer from Madagascar. Enthroned, the pair return the artist's elegant scrutiny. They stare back with a profound sense of confidence, as poised and calmly self-assured as Gunther's otherwise unnerving boy.

Less well-known artists add a bracing layer of discovery. Among them is Wanda von Debschitz-Kunowski, whose magnificent photograph of a Pfaff sewing machine has all the rigor of a finely wrought portrait — plus an edge of menace, like a mechanical praying mantis. Aenne Biermann's intimate photographs of leaves, piano keys and eggs verge on total abstraction.

Perhaps the biggest surprises are the pristine factory interiors painted by Carl Grossberg, a Bauhaus-trained designer. Grossberg is sometimes compared to American Precisionist painters like Elsie Driggs or Charles Sheeler, but his portentous, crisply painted factory pictures exude none of the Americans' classical grandeur.

Instead, a mysterious, vaguely threatening force seems to lurk within an intricate matrix of industrial power. They're almost as creepy as the kids' portraits.

And that's the way it goes with New Objectivity. Look hard. You never know what you might see.

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'New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933'

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Through Jan. 18; closed Wednesdays

Info: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org

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