“The Grenade” is a 1915 drypoint (a print made directly with a stylus on the plate) by Max Beckmann, one of the 20th century’s greatest artists. It depicts a battlefront scene in which a grenade explodes among a group of men. It’s an image of chaos, fear and murderous agony. The image speaks to many things, starting with the reality of Beckmann’s frontline experience in World War I and the psychological trauma it wreaked on him personally. But, on metaphorical levels, it questions the effects of fear, violence and war on a society and the people who inhabit it.

Hanging near Georg Scholz’s 1921 “Execution” in “Self and Society: The Norma Boom Marin Collection of German Expressionist Prints” at the Colby College Museum of Art, we can clearly feel the political angst in Beckmann’s image. Scholz’s lithograph, while no less metaphorical, is a far more direct political statement. It features a member of the financial elite consorting with a cartoonish member of the clergy on the stage of an execution where members of his own class haul away the body of a headless worker. The message is clear: It’s wrong to use members of the proletariat to carry out the violence of state enforcement against each other.

Beckmann and Die Brücke founder Ernst Ludwig Kirchner are the stars of the show, but other members of the group Die Brücke (The Bridge) and many lesser-known German artists of the time (like Scholz) make extraordinary cases for us to take them more seriously.

Beckmann rejected the term “German Expressionism.” While I think external labels like this rarely make a major difference (“Impressionism” was an insult by a critic, for example), Beckmann’s point rings true. At the birth of Freudian psychology and the first World War, Beckmann wasn’t seeking to express something so much as to explore his own subjectivity and the society in which it existed.

As a loose community of artists, the German Expressionists are united in one thing: They were exploring the sickness of their society. Something was wrong. And that something leapt from the individual to the society to the culture to the politics of Germany. It was a systemic illness. Theirs was a culture in turmoil, divided on issues of race, financial inequality and jingoistic nationalism.

Their challenge was to create art in a time of turmoil. Can art make a political difference? A societal difference? It’s almost impossible to see in the moment, but throughout history, we find that it does. In America now, we have a morally bankrupt president presiding over a party that once had a claim to being guided by values. The process of working that out will not only through politics but also through culture and society. Social critique, after all, happens not primarily through the press but among the people of a culture. It happens through social media, but even more so over the dinner table, over the water cooler, at the grocery store or during coffee hour after church.

Culture is where we perform our values. It’s where we live. So, of course, we will see and hear the threads of these conversations in entertainment, television, music, church, theater, movies, sports commentary, visual art and more.

Georg Scholz, “Hinrichtung (Execution), 1921, lithograph on wove paper. Photos courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

In terms of visual art, it’s not enough for an artist to say, for example, “I think Trump is unfit to be president.” Art gets its teeth not from being literal and obvious, but by digging into the mechanisms of culture, the very processes of how thought and expression intersect with communication.

Less than a century ago, there was once a thread of art that was so successful in critiquing the government that the leader of the country seized hundreds of thousands of works, including more than 500 of Beckmann’s pieces from museums, labeling him a “cultural Bolshevik.” In 1937, the day after Hitler gave his famous “entartete kunst” (degenerate art) speech, Beckmann fled the country.

Hitler, a skilled conservative artist, was as fixated on art as Trump, a television personality, is fixated on television ratings. This creepy but disturbingly apt parallel is one of the reasons why “Self and Society” rings with such poignancy today.

Max Beckmann, “Die Granate (The Grenade),” 1915, drypoint on simili-Japon paper, 25 by 18 inches. Photo courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

One of the most worrying messages, of course, is that these artists spoke out in concern not after the time of Hitler, but just before it. As much as they worked against it, what they got was fascism. And fascism is a right-wing, ultra-nationalist political philosophy that generally features a race component and the collusion of governmental with industry and the financial elite. With Trump’s raging jingoism, dog-whistle racism, obvious emoluments conflicts and continued fascination with dictators, it could hardly be more clear why this is a terrifyingly timely show.

The show ranges from Karl Hubbuch’s virtually impenetrable 1922 drypoint self-portrait, “Wissend und Blind” (The Knowing and the Blind), to some colorfully charming paintings such as Kirchner’s “Dodo and her Brother,” on loan from the Smith College Museum of Art. While the Hubbuch reaches directly to the dark core of the societal sickness, the Kirchner gets there indirectly via an almost decorative nod to Edvard Munch, whose 1893 “The Scream” is one of the most iconic images of angst in human history.

A key theme in “Self and Society” is illustrated by George Grosz’s “Sharks,” an image in which ugly, pig-like rich guys (undoubtedly members of the industrial elite) sit at a table practically sniffing a nude young woman who clearly would rather be somewhere else. To begin with this image and move on to the other public scenes, such as Beckmann’s bar scene or Grosz’s pulsing “No. 73 Restaurant,” we sense that society is where this illness is spreading: Money in the hands of a few affects us all, especially when they feel entitled to treat women and the working class as chattels.

Marin’s new gift to Colby is an excellent collection that includes several truly great works of art. It is powerful and, right now at least, uncomfortably poignant. While the true outcome from lessons the German Expressionists sought to learn must be implied by us back over a truly failed moment in history, the insights are clear and the warnings – the actual content of the art – feature messages we would be very wrong to ignore.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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