This selection of prints and drawings from the collection of Sharon and Gus Kopriva makes for a great show. That is -- if you like German Expressionism. If you do, it really is a great show, especially if you have an appreciation for prints and drawings. But if you are not in synch with the Sturm und Drang, the blunt emotionalism and dark irony that characterized much German art during, before and after the Weimar Republic years (1919-1933), then you might just find it a little disturbing. Despite the intimate scale and delicacy of execution, these works "keep it real" no less than gangsta rap lyrics, yet unlike gangsta rap they often depict the tragic consequences rather than merely glorifying moronic mayhem. Then as now, arrogant stupidity sometimes governed the behavior of nations as well as the violent creeps on the mean streets, and the results have been no less tragic either way.
Some literal examples of this include Kaiser's Geburtstag by Heinrich Zille, a realistic depiction of a maimed soldier, still in uniform but subsisting as a beggar, a not uncommon sight in German cities after World War I. But such obvious anti-war social realism is the exception. More typical is a psychological intrigue that alternates between rapture and decadence, a spectrum ranging from nature-based romanticism (the first hippies were German) followed by a more cynical social realism as ordinary people struggled to survive in the impoverished aftermath of the war. The same unstable atmosphere that eventually spawned Hitler also unleashed the bohemian ferment and unbridled decadence epitomized in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, the inspiration for the Broadway musical, Cabaret. But traces of those same elements were present early on. Liebesunterhaltung, a pre-war lithograph by Rudolph Grossman, depicts a voluptuous if haughty-looking woman in a slip being groped by a creepy, Peter Lorre-looking guy. She is turning away as if repelled, but a closer look reveals that her hand is reaching for his crotch. Even Paul Kleinschmidt's fairly tame 1924 etching of an older couple, Das Paar, crackles with innuendo and the psychological intrigues of the "golden years."
Far less subtle is Dr. S. und Frau, by George Grosz, a 1921 lithograph of a nude woman on a bed about to be "examined" by a bald pit bull of a doctor, a scene fraught with all the stark seediness for which Grosz is known (and you can almost hear a Kurt Weil soundtrack in the background). Things get even darker in Vergewaltigt (Raped) by the great Kathe Kollwitz, a view of a woman seemingly left for dead in a wooded glade. Her foreshortened perspective renders her as blankly inert as a log amid the leafy foliage, which looks baroquely sinuous yet sinister under the circumstances, if lacking the gaunt starkness of Kollwitz's later oeuvre. Equally baroque in execution, yet far different in tone, is Frolic by Hermann Huber, an early century lithograph of some naked maidens frolicking in a leafy glade, a scene fraught with a joyous mystique inspired, perhaps, by Nordic or Greek mythology.
And so it goes. The mysticism of romantic love is celebrated in Willy Jaeckel's early 20th century etching, Loving Pair, a rapturous view of a nude couple embracing before a sunset like an Expressionist aurora borealis amid what might almost be ice floes, and it's all very dramatic and transcendental, possibly harking to Nordic mythology and presaging some of Bjork's song lyrics. Other etchings by Lovis Corinth are more bluntly carnal in tone while sometimes touching on various forms of rapture. While tableaux and interiors comprise the bulk of these works, a rare landscape, Alfred Kubin's 1927 lithograph, Uberschwemmung, or "Flood," gives us an over-the-top view of a medieval village inundated by a tidal surge. Here geese and people take refuge on bridges as first-responders battle sea serpents with axes, and it's all quite stirring, not to mention familiar -- like a Katrina scene that Hieronymous Bosch might have concocted. But over-the-top drama was what German Expressionism was all about, and this show provides a rare opportunity to view more than four dozen classics of the genre in the gracious French Quarter confines of the Taylor-Bercier (formerly Basetti) gallery.