CAMBRIDGE — In the final month of World War II, a 19-year-old German soldier, Gerhard Altenbourg, killed a Soviet soldier with a bayonet. It wrecked him.
His unsparing drawing “Ecce Homo Dying Warrior,” appears at the end of the first gallery in “Inventur — Art in Germany, 1943-55” at the Harvard Art Museums. Leaning precariously like a marionette, a gaunt, flayed man lays his hand on his heart. Altenbourg inked the harrowed figure over pencil drawings of tanks and soldiers he’d made as a child.
War was not at all what he’d dreamed.
“Inventur” is a sweeping, pulsing, exposed nerve of an exhibition. Organized by Lynette Roth, curator of Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum and head of the division of modern and contemporary art, it visits the presumed no-man’s-land of postwar German art, starting as the war was still winding down, and finds plenty of men and women contending with the devastation with ingenuity and grit.
World War I had spawned visionary new art in Germany. Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann angrily produced apocalyptic visions, and Dada was born as a savage, satirical, and subversive response to war’s chaos.
World War II did not have the same galvanizing effect. Art history looks back on Germany as the war subsided, and shrugs. Many artists, Grosz and Beckmann among them, had left. Germany was divided into four occupation zones. One émigré, Hannah Arendt, returned to visit around 1950 and observed general indifference. The historian Tony Judt wrote of the region’s “collective amnesia.” Germans were not confronting their part in the horrors of the Holocaust.
Perhaps they weren’t suffering from amnesia, but shock.
“Inventur,” in German, means inventory. As the war wound down, Germans took what material, emotional, and societal stock they could. In a country just freed from totalitarian rule, with cities blown to rubble by Allied bombs, artists struggled to assess their role. What they created is wildly various, rough hewn, innovative, and sometimes heartbreaking.
They found an anchor in the art made between the wars. Juro Kubicêk followed the sly, provocative Dada tradition of photomontage with a stinging artist’s book, “Mein K(r)ampf,” pasting sardonic montages by several artists into Hitler’s autobiography. “My Struggle” became “My Cramp,” a title that mocked the Führer’s digestive ailments and bemoaned Nazi rule.
Simply working was an act of defiance and healing. Artists had been silenced by the Nazis, except from making art — such as bland landscapes — that pleased the state. Jewish artists had been killed or exiled, but Communist artists, including several here, had been merely shut up and conscripted. Three-quarters of the artists included in the Nazis’ infamous 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibit remained in Germany.
Fritz Winter, wounded on the Russian front, spent weeks at home in 1944 secretly crafting a remarkable painting series, “Untitled (Regenerative Earthly Powers).” These grounded yet ethereal abstractions, made with stencils from torn paper, nod to his teacher, Paul Klee, and a fascination with light and dark.
They’re oddly hopeful in a gallery that includes frank acknowledgment of war’s ravages in Altenbourg’s “Ecce Homo” and Wilhelm Rudolph’s “Dresden Destroyed” series, which depicts buildings hunkering and crumbling under a smog of scratchy ink.
But there was hope, even during the war. A lacquer factory sponsored an extraordinary series of paintings made by Willi Baumeister, Oskar Schlemmer, and Franz Krause. The industrial ploy gave the artists space to tinker, play, and push their medium. These small panels sparkle. One of Krause’s resembles a lacy photogram; another squirms with blue and pink biomorphic strands, spreading like ivy.
This scrappy, inventive streak runs throughout the show — artists used what was at hand. In 1945, K.O. Götz painted “Air-Pump Studies” with watercolor and a bicycle pump, blowing and splattering figural shapes on the page. Nine years later, his brash, aggressively swiped “June 1954/II,” made by pushing wallpaper paste and casein paint around with a squeegee, is an emblem of his continued resourcefulness.
Roth follows many artists throughout the postwar period, and we can chart them emerging from the rubble. Hannah Höch, an early Dada artist whose keen photomontages often sliced through social constructs, made the black-and-white collage “Beautiful Fishing Nets” in 1946, filled with bursting, bright forms like bombs exploding overhead. By 1952, magazines were publishing in color, and Höch exulted in the new material. “Red Textile Sheet” depicts a woman in gray striding amid extravagant red photo scraps like ribbons, as if cutting through the frilly adornments of fashion.
Compare her to another striding woman, in Alice Lex-Nerlinger’s drawing “Bombed Out.” Living in the Soviet Occupation Zone before the partition, the socialist artist captured the plight of ordinary people, such as this woman gamely shouldering her worldly goods — drawn in the social-realist style that would prevail in East Germany after the partition. Höch’s and Lex-Nerlinger’s women might be the artists themselves, making their presence known. Persevering.
As time passed, a kind of normalcy returned. Louise Rösler’s collage “Street,” an abstraction brimming with color, spinning lines, lacy patterns and bits of text, depicts a city on the move — a stunning rebirth, after the depths of Rudolph’s “Dresden Destroyed.”
The first “documenta” exhibition opened in Kassel, in 1955. After more than a decade of feisty experimentation by male and female artists, the show stuffed German art in a narrow box, exhibiting prewar modernists and their direct descendants, all men. Roth’s wider view feels wonderfully fresh — even when the subject matter is the hollowed-out soul of a traumatized nation.
INVENTUR – ART IN GERMANY, 1943-55
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, through June 3. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org