Friday, December 08, 2006


Fritz LANG, M, 1931

A measure of what kinds of work could have been brought to bear on war art is offered by Maria Tatar's fundamentally challenging book, Lustmord. Tatar's project hinges on the representations of rape murders in the postwar art of Otto Dix and George Grosz, but it is concerned with much more. She asks the most intractable questions, such as why rape murders are committed, what is at stake in the identification of the artist with the rape murderer, and what lies at the root of society's fascination with both the real and fictive crime. Lustmord is an avowedly feminist project and Tatar's methods are heterogeneous ; she employs some traditional, archival historical writing, some post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, some related film theory, and some theorization of narrative borrowed from literary studies. Her subjects are not only the work of Dix and Grosz, but also Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Fritz Lang's M, as well as Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz and its reinterpretation on film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. She begins with the assumption that the representation of rape murders in the years of the Weimar Republic is not something that can be neatly confined to a dead history. She asks what continues to motivate public fascination with the rape murderer, and attempts to grapple with the psychology of the murderer. While her ostensible subject is a certain theme in Weimar art, Tatar's historical terrain ranges from the First World War to the Nazi period, all the while working to make explicit our own contemporary investment in the image of sexual murder, pointing out both the ubiquity of the imagery and the general refusal of scholars to study it seriously, or when their consideration is unavoidable, to formalize their treatment.

Lustmord is an invaluable book for any student of Weimar culture, but it is a historical account of German art and society in the 1920s only in a limited sense. Tatar devotes just one chapter to a review of Weimar society, this having to do with the infamous serial murderers of the 1920s : Karl Denke, Wilhelm Grossmann, and Fritz Haarmann. Even here, Tatar ranges widely, from a discussion of Friedrich Murnau's Nosferatu, to Artur Dinter's rabidly anti-Semitic novel Sin Against Blood (1919), to the Nazi propaganda film Der ewige Jude, culminating in a passage from Mein Kampf. Subsequent chapters on Dix, Grosz, and Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz are even more clearly readings of the images and novel from the perspective of her theoretical armature rather than an effort to place such work within its historical context. For Tatar, what matters is the personal and mass psychology of rape murder and the subsequent identification of the artist with the murderer. As social history, Lustmord is somewhat disappointing, but it is also a compelling, enlightening, and challenging book.

Tatar begins with the premise that scholars, and particularly art historians, have actively chosen to ignore or explain away the genre of rape-murder imagery. Of course, there is truth to this assertion, but there is more at stake in this "forgetfulness" than Tatar acknowledges. The art historians whom she explicitly condemns for formalizing Dix and Grosz's savage imagery are all German scholars, authors with a special investment in celebrating the greatness of their respective artists. They may also have wanted to distance their readings from the political agendas offered up by scholars in the former German Democratic Republic. But in a conservative artistic discourse, how does one turn scenes of rape and mayhem into high art? In recent American art-historical work, there has been far less effort to explain away the imagery, even if it has yet to produce a book-length analysis of the genre. Tatar's book does not forestall such a future project, precisely because we learn so little from it regarding the specific political circumstances in which the Lustmord imagery was made. She gives no account of its reception in Weimar Germany nor has she much to say about the artists' own justifications for creating it. She has little space for the revolutionary politics of the early Weimar years. For example, she does not ask what I think is an important question : how could an artist imagine the representation of sexual murder would function as political critique ?

Let me return to Tatar's remarkable linking of the serial killer to Nosferatu and from there to the Holocaust, via the stereotypical association of the prostitute (as the chief victim of the Lustmord) with the Jew (both as murderer and victim). According to the logic of this discourse, the prostitute and the Jew were carriers of the social infections that the Nazis promised to purge. In her discussion, Tatar brilliantly shows elements of the Nazi mentality within the wider cultural field of Weimar Germany. But she barely refers to left-wing use of comparable stereotypes, from which strikingly similar social diagnoses were then drawn. Only in this case, the Left identified the prostitute far less frequently with the Jew, naming instead the bourgeoisie and the capitalist culture it represents. As in the case of the Nazis, leftist critics were often willing to move from individual pathology, the rape murderer, to social pathologies, typically mixing Social Darwinism with Marxism, confusing ontogenesis with phylogenesis. My point here is to argue that for Dix and Grosz, as artists sympathetic to the Left, disgusted with the war and with those who ordered the fighting to continue, the ill-begotten Weimar Republic would never appear as more than a prostitute state. Along with the fat businessman and the ax murderer, the prostitute was their symbol for a form of government that had sold out to financial interests and for a society without moral authority. To them, the Republic carried its infection within it. The Lustmord in this context was intended to show to the bourgeoisie the fact of its own corruption.

Tatar may have chosen not to pursue the political motivations behind the Lustmord imagery, because it would have moved her argument in the opposite direction from the one she wished to take. At issue is the question of individual agency. Tater shows how the Lustmord has long been filtered through sexual stereotypes that work to endorse the subordination of women. Legal and psychological discussions repeatedly frame the act in reference to the presumed seduction by the woman/victim of the rape murderer, in which the latter is cast as an unwilling victim of his own compulsions (or, as Tatar convincingly argues, the responsibility for the crime is shifted from the criminal to his maternal upbringing). Rarely does society invest the murderer with the responsibility of being the self-conscious author of his own crimes. Yet Tatar comes to insist on the similarity between the rape murderer and the artist, linking the compulsion to create to the compulsion to murder (both functioning as compensatory activities, substitutions for the deficiencies of the artist/murderer's life). Tatar holds up for our attention a photograph of Grosz threatening his future wife, Eva Peter, with a knife as an example of the artist's identification with the sex murderer, but she does not consider the other roles at which Grosz played ; for example, his fondness for American cowboys, mediated through the movies, led to his penchant for wearing six-guns on the streets of Berlin. Historically specific questions, such as the role of masquerade in general in Grosz's art, are outside Tatar's field of inquiry. Instead, she invokes Degas's observation about the similarity between the making of art and the deeds of the criminal, so that there is a suggestion of criminal agency in all male representations of mutilated (or distorted - she cites Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon) female bodies. I would not quarrel in principle with this observation, but it does not take us very far in understanding the specific terms of Grosz's or Degas's or Picasso's treatment of women in their art. The rape-murder imagery, thus defined, must inevitably be less a matter of self-conscious agency, the manipulation of signs for extrinsic aesthetic, or in Grosz and Dix's case, political ends, than an unwilling compulsion to express sexual violence toward women. The artist then is reduced to not much more than an unwilling conduit for a general fear of women, for a disgust with the war and contemporary society.

If specific contexts are eschewed, the work of art becomes an anonymous barometer of wider social concerns, an approach that leaves so much about the artistic enterprise unaddressed. For example, in reading Cork and Tatar, I was again struck by the especially complex, highly talented, and morally ambiguous character of Dix. In his art, perhaps more than that of any other German artist of the period, one discovers the complex interrelationship between class politics and gender politics in Weimar culture. During the Great War, Dix probably fought in more major battles and saw more service at various fronts than any other artist of note. Afterwards, he became famous for his Dadaist-inspired denunciations of postwar society, and for his virulent antiwar paintings, produced throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Yet Dix was far from a sympathetic figure, particularly in his attitude toward women. He later asserted, for example, that "In the final analysis, all wars are waged over and because of the vulva" (Tatar, p. 74). In a conversation with Fritz Loftier in 1955 Dix referred to one of his self-portraits as a rape murderer by joking that "a young man is always aggressive. The 'angry young men' we call them today. We too were passionate [zornig]. Very passionate." Dix's crude humor shows the sort of mentality that would actually take pleasure in the reproduction of such scenes. But we also know of Dix that, at least according to his wife, the artist "often felt more at ease" with his prostitute models than with bourgeois women, while conversely, in his drawings, as Brigid Barton has observed, Dix would portray his models with a sympathy that disappeared in the final canvases. Like many of the artists of the earlier Expressionist generation, Dix identified with his models as social outsiders. In their company the artist achieved a kind of personal (and of course sexual) freedom not granted to bourgeois life outside the studio. But rarely would an artist marry one of these models, so that social identification rarely overcame class barriers. The symbolic murder of Dix's models through his art is a political act in the manner I have suggested, but it is also a personal one, though not exclusively in the way that Tatar describes. For there exists a certain self-immolation in the Lustmord, linking it with another popular motif of the period, which Tatar does not mention, suicide. The pressures on an artist such as Dix must have been profound : the memory of the war, the hard years of the early Weimar Republic, the disappointment over the failure of the 1918 revolution, and overall, the increasingly marginalized, problematic place of the easel painter in the age of mass media. Identity, sexual violence, politics, and death comingle in a strange St. Vitus's Dance that, for me at least, still remains profoundly mysterious.

Robert JENSEN, « Reconstructing the Subject : Modernist Painting in Western Germany, 1945-1950. - book reviews «, Art Bulletin, March 1996 (extrait)