Art Is not Obliged to Be Beautiful

This has been a rainy, humid week. While the rain has been much needed, a few dry days would be nice. The house smells like mildew, and I even had to resort to using the clothes dryer. I know from sad experience what clothes smell like when racks are used for wet laundry during rainy, humid weather. Not good!

On the other hand, it has been a good week for going to the movies and to the Colby Museum of Art.

At Railroad Square, we saw two movies: Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s wild, surreal, pointed look at racism and economic injustice in the United States; and Leave No Trace, a sad, beautiful story about an emotionally-wounded veteran and his daughter. If you like character-driven movies, Leave No Trace is a must-see film. In fact, both movies are very much worth seeing.

For a small liberal arts college (1,800 students), Colby has an incredible art museum. It is free and open to the public six days a week. Because we live so close—about thirty-five minutes away—we have the luxury of focusing deeply on one exhibit at a time, which is my favorite way to visit an art museum. For this week’s visit, we focused on Self and Society, a collection of German Expressionist Prints.

On its website,  MoMA notes that  German Expressionism was a “major modernist movement that developed in Germany and Austria during the early decades of the 20th century.” The painters and printmakers—George Grosz and Max Beckmann, to name two—were more interested in portraying emotions rather than the actual physical world. And the emotions they portrayed were usually  dark and grim.

Why wouldn’t they be? Many of the artists had fought in World War I and had witnessed firsthand the ugliness and brutality of that war.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the post-war period was not exactly smooth and tranquil either. Then  we all know what came next. It seems to me that these Expressionist artists, who would be persecuted during the Nazi regime, had their fingers on the pulse of society. Their art will never go on the cover of chocolate boxes, but art is not obliged to be beautiful.

To be sure, beauty is a part of life, and I appreciate  beautiful art as much as the next person. But ugliness is also a part of life, and there are times when that reality is so great that artists have no choice but to face it and portray it.

Here are a couple of photos I took of prints from Self and Society.

Max Beckmann, “Die Granate (The Grenade).” 1915


George Grosz, “No. 73 Restaurant,” c. 1925


In the gallery below Self and Society, we came across this—Cracked Question by Elizabeth Murray, who was not a German Expressionist.

But somehow, after seeing the horrors portrayed in Self and SocietyCracked Question seemed absolutely appropriate.



26 thoughts on “Art Is not Obliged to Be Beautiful”

    1. Sure are! Art is not one thing, and I really do think the times play a large role in shaping the arts.

  1. Hi. It has been rainy as can be for the last week in my region too (the Philadelphia area).

    I’ve put Leave No Trace on my list. I think it’s playing near me. I hope it hasn’t left the theaters yet.

    My wife and I watched a good flick last night at home. Goodbye Christopher Robin. It’s about AA Milne and his family and his writing career.

    See you —

    Neil S.

    1. We haven’t seen “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” but I’ve heard it was good. I’ll put it on our to be watched list (TBWL).

    1. “Cracked Question” wasn’t part of the exhibit, but somehow it really seemed to fit.

  2. I do like the socially conscious German art from that era. Have you heard of Kathe Kollwitz – she did some similar work from about 1900 through the 1920s.

    1. Me, too. For some reason, I am really drawn to this dark art. And, yes, I have heard of Kathe Kollwitz and have seen her work at the Portland Museum of Art. For a small state, we are very lucky to have access to so much good art.

  3. I really like many of the German Expressionists – their colour, vibrancy and reduction of an image to something more like a pattern. I like the black and white printwork too. I happened upon a major exhibition of it on a trip to Paris many years ago and was so blown away that I was reluctant to leave it.

    I’m not keen on the industrial or caricature ones but as you say, they did not shy away from pointing out what was ugly.

    Incomprehensible that we’re living through at least a pale echo of that time, hoping it is a fleeting reminder of the dangers and does not become a fissure.

    1. For some reason, I am really drawn to this art. I think the artists caught the essence of an ugly time, and while we don’t want to turn away from beauty, we also don’t want to shy away from ugliness. And, yes, we are living through a pale echo of that time. Very scary.

  4. Wow…such a wonderful post. I saw a major show of German Expressionism at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) during the Reagan years. I was so moved by the dramatic artworks I saw and felt a connection with its somber darkness. I do not want to live with such sobering images in my daily life but I really value this art period. Thanks for sharing! As often I had a strong emotional teary response as I read your words to my husband.You are such a wonderful writer!

    1. Thank you so very, very much! Your kind words mean a lot to me. And there’s something about German Expressionism, isn’t there? Dark art, for sure, but it gets to the heart of the matter.

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