‘Otto Neumann: Modern Degenerate’ Shows an Artist Struggling Through the Hopelessness of 20th Century Germany

This article was originally published by the Chicago Reader on January 26, 2018, and was written by Dmitry Samarov.

Dante’s Hell: Figures, linoleum print with watercolor, 1920s

Otto Neumann (1895-1975) survived conscription into the German army during World War I, persecution by the Nazis, and the suicide of his only child, and while none of those cataclysmic events appear directly in his many drawings, paintings, and prints, trauma and suffering were his lifelong subjects. Neumann’s most productive period was during the 1920s and 30s, and that work forms the basis of two illuminating exhibitions at Rare Nest Gallery in Avondale and the State Street Gallery at Robert Morris University downtown.

Born into a prominent university intellectual family in Heidelberg, Neumann was exposed to such early 20th century luminaries as sociologist Max Weber and psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn at an early age. Within his social circle, career in art was considered beneath his station, but once the young man communicated the seriousness of his intent, his linguist father became supportive and sent him to study at the art academy in Munich, the city then considered Germany’s creative capital.

Neumann’s early work shows the influence of both French masters like Cezanne and the contemporary style that was then being developed by German Expressionists like Kirchner. But he was also inspired by older art, especially that of Albrecht Durer, whose allegorical subject-matter and unmatched drawing technique Neumann would emulate throughout his career. His studies were interrupted by World War I, but he was soon discharged after being judged “unfit”; Neumann was a lifelong depressive and hypochondriac, susceptible to long periods of paralyzing inactivity.

Divine Comedy (The Opportunists, Smitten by Monstrous Insects), graphite, 1927-28

His first mature body of work is a set of drawings inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The entire set of 23 (one for each of the Cantos) is on view at the State Street Gallery. Done in graphite, they’re distinguished by their sensitive modeling of forms and virtual absence of setting or landscape. For decades, Neumann would continue this tendency to place multiple wandering figures in a void with no floor, ceiling, sky, or horizon. This allegorical non-space was his way of articulating the very real suffering going on all around him.

In 1929, he married Hilde Rothschild; their only child, Marianne, was born later that same year. His marriage to the daughter of a prominent Jewish family allowed him the freedom to practice his art with little worry about making a living, but it soon made him a pariah after the rise of National Socialism. The Rothschilds’ prominent contacts were able to save Neumann’s young family from the concentration camps, but Neumann’s art was labeled “degenerate” both because of his refusal to divorce Hilde and because his pictures did not portray the wholesome Aryan fantasy promoted by the Nazis.

After completing the Inferno drawings in 1929, Neumann continued to reinterpret these same scenes as lithographs, linoleum cuts, and sketches. In the prints, unlike the pencil drawings, Neumann renders his figures as flat shapes, eschewing shading and modeling altogether. In some of the more elegant examples, he approaches Matisse’s level of evocative line-work. But just as in the earlier drawings, all the figures seem to be wandering around in a void, with only occasional rock formations to provide a setting or obstacle. The overall impression left by most of Neumann’s pictures is that of being lost in a kind of metaphysical fog.

Probsubrey, lithograph, 1933

After the Inferno, Neumann completed a series of grotesques in which humans do eternal battle with creatures while morphing into monsters themselves, all suspended in his signature non-space. He also made a series of fourteen prints based on Edvard Munch’s anti-Eden fairytale Alpha and Omega in which a man, a woman, and a succession of animals vie for one another’s love with disastrous results. These figures resemble those found in medieval manuscripts in their simple yet sure rendering. Neumann makes the trials and tribulations of these mythical beings appear both timeless and immediate with his masterful technique and instinctive editing out of unnecessary detail.

The Neumann family survived World War II and were able to go on with their lives, but in 1953, Marianne, their only child, committed suicide. Characteristically, Neumann did not directly address this tragedy in his art. From the 40s onward his work became increasingly abstract, losing the urgency and specificity of his 20s and 30s high-water mark. Thankfully, both the Rare Nest and State Street Gallery exhibits concentrate on that earlier, more productive period. Both shows feature the occasional oil or watercolor, but the main attraction is Neumann’s many drawings and prints. Whether rendered in pencil, litho crayon, or lino cutter, Neumann’s series on human travails—while inspired by Dante and other literary sources—forms a unique body of work worthy of greater attention.

Though Otto Neumann was lumped in with the Expressionists as a “Degenerate Artist” by the Nazis, he doesn’t easily fit their mold. His art is quieter, less emotionally direct, and less improvisational than theirs. Even though he didn’t directly address the wars and other tragedies he lived through (as Rare Nest’s Keith Bringe points out on the show card, quoting Dante’s Inferno, Canto 3: The Ante-Inferno,”These are the souls that—when alive—refused to take sides on the great political and moral issues”), Neumann wrestled with the issues of his day in his own way. His grasping, stumbling strugglers feel their way through a hopeless void: his silent, melancholy, allegorical evocation of Germany in the first half of the last century.