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Arts & Culture

Exhibit: The Human Beast

German Expressionist Exhibit Includes Trio Of Films

The Human Beast

The San Diego Museum of Art is in the midst of an exhibit on German Expressionism called The Human Beast. Assistant curator Ariel Plotek gives us a tour.

I have to confess that all I knew about German Expressionism came from the glorious films I saw in film school. SIlent films like "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." So in my mind I always thought of German Expressionism in black and white terms. So you can imagine my delightful surprise when assistant curator Ariel Plotek took me on a tour of The Human Beast exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art and I was dazzled by the explosion of color. My mind quickly raced and wondered what those filmmakers might have done if that had had color film at their disposal back then? Some of those films were mind blowing in black and white, imagine how they could have dazzled the senses with the addition of color.

For maximum effect, don't read Plotek's comments but watch the video to appreciate the art in all its glory. Then head down to the museum to see the trio of classic German Expressionist films: "M" starring the magnificent Peter Lorre; "Nosferatu" with the creepy Max Schreck; and the visually stunning "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." What's amazing about these films is that despite what we might consider primitive cinematic technology, they created worlds that are in many ways more creative, challenging, bold, and fresh than anything being done today.


Here is Plotek's quick mini-tour of The Human Beast.

"I'm Ariel Plotek, I'm a curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, and we are here in our exhibition, "The Human Beast" - German Expressionism at the San Diego Museum of Art. It's a quite large exhibition. We're very proud of the fact that most of the work comes from our collections. There are some important loans, but what you're seeing are both work that has been with the museum for some time, and most excitingly a very large and very important gift to the museum - the Kondon collection, which is comprised essentially of German and Austrian expressionist art.

"Well the title actually comes from a novel by Émile Zola - "The Human Beast." And the thought that we had was really that these depictions of man and man's most, lets say, primal and animal instincts was what so much of this work was about. And I would say this is true particularly of a painting here by Otto Dix. It's a portrait though of a Kanonier luvas, who is transformed in this painting, this sort of anthropomorphic hybrid creature - part lion, part man. We're looking here at a portrait, a commissioned portrait by Lovis Corinth who is older than the generation of the expressionist that we are showing elsewhere in the exhibition. An artist who represents an interesting sort of bridge if you will between impressionism and expressionism. And we see here an interesting combination. On the one hand so many of the trappings of a more conventional portrait, of an aristocratic subject I might add, who has his family crest prominently displayed in the upper righthand corner of the picture. But whose expression, the eye with a sort of faintly visible monocle and the intensity of the engagement I would say with the viewer is going to kind of… speaks to new and expressive concerns.

"We wanted to sort of make this presentation of expressionist art here in California relate to another aspect of California culture, particularly of the 1930s and 40s, and that is the culture of Hollywood. We thought that the presentation of these films from the vemeer era not only complimented the work in the show but invite us to think about the influence that German expressionism both as an art and as an art of the screen would have upon art and filmmaking in this country.

"We're looking here at painting of Broadway in New York by George Grosz, painted in 1934. On of the things that the title of the exhibition suggests, this idea of the human beast, is the relationship between the so called Fauves, artists in France who were labeled by critics around 1905 as wild beasts. They were followers of Matisse, and it was a particular sort of very radical and expressive use of color that they were singled out as mad or deranged as the critics liked to determine them. And I think that this taste for very bold and striking color is nowhere more in evidence than in this work by Gross, which i should mention is a watercolor. A large watercolor - a sort of tour de force. It is - it's worth mentioning too that the fact of so many of the works in this exhibition being works on paper, as is the case with Gross' view of Broadway, makes the exhibition all the more of an opportunity not to be missed because these are works that are fragile, light sensitive, and will have to return to our vaults when the exhibition closes."


The Human Beast Exhibit runs through November 11 at the San Diego Museum of Art in Blaboa Park.

Film Schedule:

"M" (1931) screens Mondays and Fridays

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920) screens Tuesdays (free museum day) and Saturdays

"Nosferatu" (1922) screens Thursdays and Sundays