For artists the go-go 80s were mighty fine. Now galleries close faster than they opened, and painters who once sold on spec scrounge for corporate commissions and jobs at Starbucks. Artists and dealers chalk up the art world’s doldrums to bad times all over: people just don’t have enough money to buy art. Create some jobs, they say, and new works will again fly off studio walls.

Yet the exhibit The German Print Portfolio 1890-1930 at the Smart Museum shows that artists and dealers once found ways to prosper in even the most challenging economic times. As bad as things are now, conditions in Germany during and following World War I were worse. In July 1914 one American dollar bought 4.20 marks. In November 1923 one dollar bought 4,200,000,000,000 marks. By then there was also rampant unemployment, dislocation, and corruption.

In a show that is as fascinating as social history as it is appealing as art, the curators have laid out a compelling argument that the German art world flourished by appealing to patrons’ fear of upheaval. In the years following World War I Germany was anything but a prosperous, self-confident nation. Its political atmosphere–crowded with anarchists, communists, socialists, arch conservatives, and finally fascists–was as turbulent as its economics. When Germans started hauling around those wheelbarrows filled with money, some of them headed to dealers to buy print portfolios.

According to Stephanie D’Alessandro, who had a hand in curating the show and edited its catalog, art patrons thought of prints the way they thought of precious metals and jewels: as safe places to park money, as able to retain their value despite rampant inflation. D’Alessandro also points out that portfolios could easily be carried if their owners had to flee.

Lovis Corinth shrewdly realized that print patrons assumed the work of a conspicuously successful artist would be most likely to mount in value and was therefore more attractive. One of his portfolios in the show features prints that depict his very comfortable city house in Berlin and his country estate in Bavaria, a series that marketed its creator as it sold.

Perhaps the most fascinating portfolio in the show is that of German expressionist painter George Grosz. He joined the rush to make prints but mocked it at the same time. In 1925 he wrote, “Today’s art is dependent on the bourgeois class and shall die with it; the artist, possibly without wishing to be so, is a bankrupt factory and an investment machine which the rich exploiter and the aesthetic fop use in order to invest his money more or less advantageously.”

Grosz’s work sold to well-to-do collectors, yet it’s a bitter indictment of Germany’s moneyed classes. One print shows a fat-cat industrialist sitting at a table, clenching money in his arms. On the opposite side of the table a gaunt, naked girl begs. In another print a dirty-faced tycoon stands before billowing, filthy smokestacks. One hand thumbs his breast pocket, the other grabs his groin while holding a thick cigar, an unmysterious symbol. The legend is a quote from the revered German poet Friedrich von Schiller: “I will root from my path whatever obstructs my progress toward becoming the master.” It’s a double hit at the German establishment.

Grosz’s first edition of this portfolio–a run of 40–was luxuriously bound in vellum and printed on handmade Japanese paper. It came out in 1923, the worst year of inflation for Weimar Germany. But its construction as a precious object was meant to imbue it with a timeless worth, and Grosz priced it dear for the well-to-do collectors. But in an act befitting his dadaist roots, he sold another edition of the same prints for one percent of the cost of the vellum set. He hoped in part to undermine the commodification of the arts and sabotage the “investment machine,” in part to elicit appreciation for his work from struggling workers, the audience he most wanted to please and influence.

The German Print Portfolio, which was organized by the Smart and sent on tour for a year while its galleries were renovated, includes ten full portfolios, eight of them from the museum’s fine collection of 20th-century German works. The exhibit opens at the Smart, 5550 S. Greenwood, on Tuesday, October 5, and runs through December 12. Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday, noon to 6 Saturday and Sunday; admission is free. The exhibit will be accompanied by a series of lectures and films. The first lecture is by the exhibition’s chief curator, Robin Reisenfeld, on Saturday, October 2, at 5 in the Kirsten Physics Lecture Hall, Room 115, 5720 S. Ellis; admission is free. For more information call 702-0200.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jerry Kobylecky.