Hitler would have loathed this painting

The German artist Georg Scholz (1890-1945) painted this picture of a small provincial village when his country was falling apart. In the summer of 1922, Germany’s foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, was assassinated by right-wing army officers. In the fall, hyperinflation arrived. Cash printed in the morning was useless by the afternoon.

Having lost World War I, endured a flu pandemic and overcome a revolution by radical left workers and soldiers, Germany was struggling to make its reparation payments. In January 1923, when Scholz was still working on “Small Town by Day,” French and Belgian troops reoccupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, and seized its mining industries.

Things felt seriously dysfunctional. And so Scholz, a leftist associated with the verist movement in art (a branch of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity) decided to paint a rural village.

I’ve seen this painting maybe half a dozen times in the Art Institute of Chicago, and it never fails to make me chuckle — although always nervously.

It almost looks like an educational diorama, everything neat and Tinkertoy tidy. Scholz’s confidently thrusting vectors and elevated perspective allow the viewer an illusion of omniscience, as if we were Christof, the godlike director played by Ed Harris in “The Truman Show.” But any feeling of peace and order evaporates — and horror slowly mounts — when you look closer.

The way Scholz uses detail and direction to encourage the eye to roam around the picture is masterful. You might notice first the butcher in the foreground, outside No. 7. Every town needs a butcher!

Holding a bloodied knife in his teeth, he stands at a table with a bucket of blood nearby, squeezing feces from the intestines of the disemboweled, decapitated pig carcass hanging behind him.

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In the street outside, a man stands in front of two menacingly caparisoned horses pulling an empty black hearse. Nattily dressed, he looks up to a startled woman leaning out of a window, her bosom cascading over the ledge. Has someone died? A boy scoops up manure left by the horses and an elderly woman walks to an outhouse.

Further back, Scholz presents a more wholesome vision. Behind a bald and bespectacled priest (representing religion), a matron pushes a baby carriage alongside three white geese (family). Not far from a bust of Frederick the Great (nationalism), a lavishly mustachioed army officer (militarism) marches pompously across the square.

More mysteriously, an unaccompanied ox pulls along an enormous barrel on wheels while, farther off, a man on crutches — presumably a war veteran (he’s missing part of one leg) — walks off into the distance along a straight road. Two diagonally suspended barrier gates may or may not obstruct his escape. By this point, having mentally wandered through this initially attractive then suddenly suffocating village, you’re desperate to follow in his wake and escape out the other side.

The war, in which Scholz had seen action on two fronts, had shattered the sentimental Romanticism projected onto traditional German rural life. Fifteen million people had died, one-third of them Germans, leaving 2 million orphans and a million widows. A million more were invalids, and the kinds of injuries they carried were atrocious.

All this had given rise to shock, denial and dismay. Artists inclined to criticize the war’s prosecution and those, like Scholz, who worried about the potential for a reactionary backlash (Hitler’s failed Munich beer hall putsch was just months away) introduced notes of loathing and disgust into their art. You can see this tendency throughout Weimar culture and in the art of the verists in particular. For those who had survived the hell of trench warfare, cynicism, satire and bile became tools providing a path back to life.

Ironically, at the end of World War II, Scholz himself was made mayor of a small town. He died, alas, before he could achieve much.


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