New Theories of Painting in Germany, 1920s
The Great War ended with the notorious Treaty of Versailles, a treaty, which inflicted humiliating reparations upon the German peoples, leaving them with feelings of despair and anger and a stunned disbelief. Germany had not been invaded, Berlin had not fallen, there had been no victory parades by the allies down the wide expanse of the Unter den Linden—so how could the war have been lost? The fact that there were few young and fit men left to fight was not nearly as resonant as the notion that somehow Germany had been sold out. Instead of fighting on, the reasoning went, powerful forces negotiated with the allies and made a peace that the German people would never have wanted. Just who was responsible for this horrifying turn of events was unclear but the favorite theory was that the Jews were responsible for the defeat.
Regardless of why Germany lost the war, the Kaiser went into exile and a new Republic, based in the university city of Weimer, was formed. The Weimer Republic emerged after the November Revolution of 1918 and presided over one of the most brilliant creative periods of artistic activity of the century. A weak and divided government, riven with clashing factions, uprisings, assassinations and economic chaos, nevertheless held the country together until the final victory of Nazi rule in 1933. Had Charles Dickens been writing of this tumultuous period he surely would have repeated, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, the streets of major German cities were marked by the presence of disabled and maimed veterans, desperate women, prostituting themselves in order to earn a living, businessmen grown fat with profiteering, and disaffected malcontents of all kinds. But, on the other hand, in the face of the adversity and the corruption and downright decadence, especially in Berlin, this city became the mecca for what was left of the avant-garde as a provocative protest movement.
It was noted in an earlier posts that first, the avant-garde impetus had been quelled in Paris by the sentiments of Recall to Order and second, that Surrealism was a conservative movement that went inward into the subconscious. The innovative impulse shifted to literature and jazz. Because the history of art in the twentieth century has been largely a formalist one, the avant-garde in Berlin was often neglected due to its insistence on representation. But it was here in Berlin that painting became confrontational to the point of artists being censored and put on trial by the government. It was here in Berlin that a tired and discredited Expressionism migrated into a thriving and exciting film industry nurturing the talents of Fritz Lang. It was here in Berlin that the concept of “theater” was severed from its connection to illusionism through the work of Bertold Brecht. It was here that German philosophy reinvented itself for a modern era based upon mass communication in the writings of Walter Benjamin. And it was here that the visual arts had an unexpected and unprecedented flowering as a “New Objectivity.”
As a counterweight to the Expressionist romanticism and internalized and dramatized subjectivity, German artists, disillusioned and sickened by the carnage of the Great War, turned towards an art that was clear and clean, objective and cool, utilitarian and functional—a “New Objectivity.” As painter Ludwig Meidner said in 1919, “What will matter tomorrow, what I and all the others need, is a fanatical, fervent naturalism.” “Naturalism,” “realism,” and the increasingly heard phrase, “rappel à l’ordre,” were the key words of the era. The new path towards representation, or to be accurate, the use of representation to recreate an imagine “reality” had already been evident with the Italian movement, Pitture Metafisica and the works of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà as early as 1917, and by the artists of the Novecento group (Achille Funi, Mario Sironi, Udaldo Oppi, Felice Castoraati), founded in Milan in 1922. The Italian magazine, Valori Plastici supported the return of neoclassicism, combined with traditional realism and mixed together to provide a taste of dreams. But in Germany, this new objective approach to art had a particular urgency. The representation of reality had to take a different path. The truth had to be told. If artists simply reveled the true state and conditions of everyday life, then the nation would never again be misled into another futile, life-wasting war.
While Italian artists were reacting to the chaos of Futurism which evolved into Fascism, the German artists were responding to the end of the War with a mixture of cynicism and hope for a better future and focused their goals on the obtainable ones of the here and now. The result of the new scrutiny of the everyday, whether pleasant or unpleasant, was a movement located and named in 1922 by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunstalle in Mannheim, who sent out a survey inquiring as to whether there is “Ein neuer Naturalismus?” In May, 1923 he began informing his fellow art critics of the new exhibition he was planning to form under the title of Neue Sachlichkeit in Mannheim. Hartlaub arranged the artists of this new movement into bipolar groups: the conservative, classical right wing and the truth-telling Verist group on the left that came to the New Objectivity from Dada and Expressionism. Hartlaub’s exhibition in 1925 was paired by a book on Post-Expressionism and Magic Realism by Franz Roh. Writing in Nach-Expressionismus – magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäisches Malerei, Roh coined the term “magic realism.”
Although “magic realism” was almost immediately adapted by Latin American writers for their own purposes, Roh described the term as being deeply rooted in “objects.” Roh stated,
“We will indicate here, in a cursory way, the point at which the new painting separates itself from Expressionism by means of its objects…it resorts to the everyday and the commonplace for the purpose of distancing it, investing it with a shocking exoticism…if a picture portrayed a city, for example, it represented the destruction produced by volcanic lava and not just a play of forms the booty of an agitated cubism…We recognize this world, although now—not only because we have emerged from a dream—we look on it with new eyes…we are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane…instead of the remote horrors of hell, the inextinguishable horrors of our own time (Grosz and Dix)…”
Roh seems to veer toward some of the ideas offered by Dada when he uses the term “convulsive life,” but he was actually looking back to the long traditions in German art of imbuing ordinary objects with meaning, a kind of symbolic knowledge, and the heritage of extreme expressionism as a mechanism for telling the truth, no matter how terrible. The Isenheim Altarpiece comes to mind, and Roh states,
“…the new art does not belong to the series of initial artistic phases that includes Expressionism. It is a moment of decantation and clarification that was fortunate enough to find right at the start an almost exhausted artistic revolution that had begun to discover new avenues…Post-Expressionism sought to reintegrate reality into the heart of visibility. The elemental happiness of seeing again, or recognizing things, reenters. Painting becomes once again the mirror or palpable exteriority.”
Despite the strength of the new movement, few galleries and art dealers in Berlin, Herwarth Walden’s Sturm Galerie and the galleries of Bruno Cassirer and Alfred Flechtheim were not particularly interested in the emerging art style. Only the gallery Neumann-Nierendorf, run by Karl Nierendorf, favored New Objectivity. As examination of the art by the New Objectivity artists quickly reveals that there would be few buyers for art that brutally depicted the ugliness of the world of prostitutes and their customers, Otto Dix, or the attack on ineffectual bureaucrats, George Grosz, or the decadence of the upper classes in Berlin, Christian Schad and Max Beckman, not to mention the fevered murder scenes of Rudolf Schlichter and the paintings of torture and torment by Max Beckmann. These artists constructed a portrait of an era that blazed up and was quickly doused by the icy waters of the Nazis. And yet, it is these paintings that come to mind when one says the words “Weimer Republic.” The portraits of Otto Dix appear throughout the film, Cabaret, and the metamorphosis of George Grosz to a war dissenter to a Dada agitator to a scathing critic of the inept regime to an exile in New York, waiting for the end of Hitler, tell the story of these “best of times, worst of times.”
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.