The real cabaret on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a dark vision of debauchery and suffering.
Fraeuleins in see-through gowns sway to a jazz band; prostitutes parade in the streets; legless war veterans crouch on the cobblestones.
Such is the graphic content of Otto Dix's Metropolis, a sardonic portrait of wicked behavior in Germany's Weimar Republic, where nonstop carousing was a coping strategy for wartime defeat and economic disaster.
The wall-sized triptych in pencil and charcoal is the centerpiece of "Glitter and Doom: German Portraits From the 1920s," 40 paintings and 60 works on paper, many on loan from German museums, on view at the Met through Feb. 19.
It's the first broad survey of German verist portraits of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), ultra-realist modernism influenced by the precision draftsmanship of old masters, such as Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein.
The Weimar exhibition coincides with a New York art market boom in early modernist German and Austrian art. Portraits and landscapes by Viennese artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Berlin street scene of strolling prostitutes racked up record auction prices in the tens of millions of dollars this month.
Pictures from 1920s Berlin have a special allure, evoking the romanticized Broadway and Hollywood productions of Cabaret, where fictional American singer Sally Bowles held forth.
"It was a brilliant, sinister time, when Berlin was the capital of art, sex and violence," a wall text says about the creative outpouring in the turbulent decade that preceded the Third Reich.
Dix, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Christian Schad and a half-dozen other artists in the show took their subjects from a cross-section of German society: the demimonde of prostitutes, pimps, transvestites and drug addicts, and the genteel professional classes—doctors, lawyers and poets and businessmen.
Faces and bodies of the sitters were distilled to represent various Germans. Prominent features were often exaggerated or even caricatured in a conscious effort to produce unflattering likenesses.
Some of the portraits are racy in the extreme, even voyeuristic. A sign at the gallery entrance warns that some content isn't suitable for children.
About 20 portraits are of prostitutes flaunting their nude bodies, lesbian or heterosexual love scenes or scantily clad denizens of anything-goes nightclubs.
Dix gets star billing with 50 works that capture a wide array of people in unflinching poses. His 1928 oil and tempera portrait of the red-gowned Anita Berber, a nude dancer, bisexual seductress and opium addict, exemplifies the notorious personalities Dix favored.
"She was sort of the icon of the Weimar Period," said exhibition curator Sabine Rewald, who put four years into organizing the show, including many visits to German museums to arrange the loans.
Pictured in blood-red gown, with her chalk-white face, Berber distills "the excess, glamour and misery of the Weimar Republic. To her contemporaries, she was perversion incarnate," a wall text notes. Hard living did her in before her 30th birthday.
Elli, Dix's pencil on paper drawing of an aging prostitute, is shockingly clinical. "She flaunts her sex and a body distorted by age, with its withered breasts and bony chest, wide hips and slack thighs," the show catalog notes.
The Metropolis drawings, on loan from Stuttgart's Kunstmuseum, are studies for Dix's fully realized oil triptych that hangs in the same gallery. Both are the finest examples of Weimar nightlife depictions, capturing the garish decadence and lonely outcasts of the era.
Schad's portraits often showed highly sexual scenes of lesbians, heterosexuals and transvestites from the upper classes.
His 1927 oil of Count St. Genois d'Anneaucourt, a Viennese nobleman in black tie flanked by a Berlin transvestite and older matron, both in see-through gowns, captures the anything goes sexuality of the times. His 1928 oil, Two Girls, shows naked lesbians on a bed engaging in sexual activities.
Beckmann's 1923 oil, Dance in Baden-Baden, shows couples packed together so tightly that they seem to merge. Most of his works depicted Germans of genteel society. Prostitutes and other Weimar outcasts aren't found in his work.
Grosz, a consummate satirist, is represented with The Eclipse of the Sun, showing German President Paul von Hindenburg as a puppet of aristocrats and arms dealers. A donkey with blinders eating newspaper pages represents foolish German citizens who believed lies in the press.
Although the Weimar Republic had become relatively stable by 1926, a commentary notes, this picture hints at Germany's impending doom. The worldwide financial crisis hit in 1929 and Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor in 1933, ending the Weimar era and forcing many of these artists into exile.
by David Minthorn, Copyright 2006 Associated Press