Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Decadence and Salvation, Looking Good

There is a bit of Berlin in New York these days, in the form of grotesque caricature, riveting sexuality, and hypnotic self-doubt. Yes, self-loathing can be alluring—“Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 19th, shows us how, with portraits of an era of social mayhem routinely labeled as utter decadence. Here are Weimar Berlin’s decrepit prostitutes, despairing intellectuals, and repulsive military personnel, pompous officers and wounded cannon fodder both, as seen by the likes of Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and George Grosz, among others.

The show has tongues wagging in a variety of tones. ArtForum speaks clinically of the paintings’ intent to “intensify Dada’s anatomical operation---suggesting…an entire culture driven by an ongoing cycle of corporeal assault,” while Newsweek enthuses “There's not a trace of ‘my kid could have done that’ modernism in this show. These guys could really draw and paint.” Whether issued from the Ivory Tower or phrased as pure populism, reviews all find the exhibit mesmerizing, which begs the question of why societal dysfunction is such a crowd-pleaser. Is it as simple as the canvases’ visual vibrancy, their bright-yet-forbidding coloration, gripping compositions, navel-gazing intimacy? Or is it more of a rubber-necking syndrome evincing the fascination of decay, with everyone equally enthralled by the warped figures, arrestingly ugly faces, and in-your-face genitalia?

As it turns out, both. This “amazing show” earns such a pronouncement from the New York Times by delighting with Beckmann’s technical virtuosity and Dix’s innovative, decorative touches. It is beloved in a comparatively naughty review in New York magazine because it “cheered [the reviewer] up to no end…There is a wicked joy…to be found in skewering the human animal…Sometimes, screw ‘em all.” As this author astutely points out, the renaissance of such a style--dubbed Verist in its search for the truth behind society’s ugliness--in contemporary America could lead to some interesting depictions of Bush, Cheney, and cohorts. Beyond the vicarious delight of mentally ripping into our world with the aesthetic language of between-wars Berlin, the show also provides well-written wall texts, an extensive catalog, and unfussy, straightforward arrangement. Decadence has never looked so good.

Meanwhile, in California, the future has never looked brighter--literally. On January 10th, SunPower, a corporation which manufactures solar cells and panels, acquired PowerLight, a smaller yet equally dynamic firm that specializes in the systems and plants that utilize the cell technology. PowerLight is a quickly-growing shining star whose major projects include airport hangars, jails, and even real estate developments, while SunPower is a giant in the field, with the world’s most efficient solar cells and the innovation to drive the technology forward. One enthusiastic goal of the merger is to reduce the cost of solar energy by 50% by 2012.

A visit to PowerLight’s headquarters in south Berkeley, a neighborhood itself in transition with eco-home stores alongside bait shacks, reveals a buzz of change already taking place just days after the merger. Smartly-designed posters that incorporate each firm’s logo are going up throughout the office. Magnets are already in place on filing cabinets. Nearby, a wall displays PowerLight’s solar achievements already in place, including the Solarpark in Bavaria, Germany, where rows of panels nestle in the hills like a modern-day reinvention of the pastoral vineyard. (This image is not terribly far-fetched: PowerLight has also worked with wineries to design systems that save money by using solar energy at hours of peak prices on the grid.) Unlike in the United States, where solar subsidies come only at a state level in places like California, keeping the cost prohibitively high in non-subsidized regions, in Germany solar is federally subsidized. Germany believes firmly--if a bit frantically, as anyone who has read the press' recent Weltuntergang global warming assessments can attest--in the importance of a cleaner, more environmentally-sound future

A peek inside PowerLight’s headquarters is refreshing without the schadenfreude. It provides a bit of hope. It seems obvious to suggest that one reason "Glitter and Doom" is so entrancing is that societies on a slow path south love to gaze on other fallen civilizations, perhaps explaining the current American craze for the late Roman empire. Yet it is equally compelling to imagine how we can save ourselves. Under the relentlessly sunny California sky, an image of positive things to come nearly outstrips the carnival of oddities on the New York gallery wall. Nearly. Like yin and yang, sweet and sour, downfall and upswing form a pleasing duet. Here’s hoping “Glitter and Doom” travels far and wide so that all may enjoy it, that it flies ultimately to Berlin—in a solar-paneled jet.

Images courtesy http://www.sunpowercorp.com/products/photogallery/, (solar complex in Arnstein, Germany) http://www.powerlight.com/success/powerplants.php (Bavaria Solarpark)
and http://www.metmuseum.org/special/glitter/images.asp. Top image detail of Christan Schad's Count St. Genois d'Anneaucort (1927), below is his Self Portrait (1927). Female is Otto Dix's The Dancer Anita Berber (1925). Group is Dix's Skat Players (1920).

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