New Objectivity Artists Exposed the Decadence and Hypocrisy of German Society
Max Beckmann, The Night (Die Nacht), 1918-19. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Post-war, a clear-eyed look at German society
Many German artists entered World War I enthusiastically, believing it would bring about positive social change. However, the horrors they experienced in the trenches, and their country’s humiliating defeat, left them bitter and disillusioned at the seemingly futile bloodletting. In the aftermath, the freedom of form and color associated with pre-war Expressionism seemed out of touch with the pervasive post-war cynicism. In this context, many artists turned toward a new kind of realism with a biting satirical edge, a style which came to be known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).
The movement never had a formal manifesto; it took its name from a 1923 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mannheim organized by director Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub. Hartlaub featured artists working in a diverse range of styles, including Georg Schrimpf, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and Alexander Kanoldt, but felt their work embodied a purely German aesthetic.
At the same time, art critic Franz Roh referred to the style as “Magic Realism,” which he saw as a far more pan-European movement that incorporated the classicizing retour à l’ordre (return to order) aesthetic of Pablo Picasso and André Derain in Paris, as well as the metaphysical art of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà in Italy. The influence of de Chirico certainly had an impact on many German artists, who adapted his eerie, featureless figures into their own works.
Matthew Gale, co-curator of the exhibition “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919–33” at Tate Modern in London, suggested that Magic Realism has become so inextricably linked with Germany because of “the social and political plunge…the total collapse of structures by which society was held together,” which most acutely affected that country. This upheaval inspired German artists to turn a uniquely harsh mirror on their rapidly changing society.
Artists respond to social and political upheaval
George Grosz, Suicide, 1916. © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, New Jersey, 2018. Courtesy of Tate
Though not unified by a manifesto, the work of artists such as Grosz, Dix, and Beckmann, along with Rudolf Schlichter and Jeanne Mammen, shows a tension between the increasing freedoms of their modernizing society and the trauma and devastation caused by war.
Dix was particularly attuned to the horrors of battle and the manner in which the German people had spurned those who fought for their country. In The War (1924)—his viscerally powerful portfolio of prints based largely on his own harrowing experiences as a soldier—Dix exploits the corrosive nature of etching and aquatint to heighten the sense of decay in his portrayals of bomb-blasted landscapes and decomposing bodies. The appalling human cost of World War I is shown to brutally satirical effect in The Skat Players – Card Playing War Invalids (1920). Featuring three appallingly injured soldiers, Dix’s painting suggests that war is nothing more than a gamble played between men.
Rudolf Schlichter, The Artist with Two Hanged Women, 1924. © Viola Roehr v, Alvenslben, Muenchen. Courtesy of Tate.
Jeanne Mammen, Boring Dolls, 1929. © DACS, 2018. Courtesy of Tate.
In The Night (1919), Beckmann reveals his own nihilistic worldview. Though not a battle scene, the painting depicts a man being brutally strangled while his wife is seen stripped and bound to a beam with a clear suggestion that she has been raped. The claustrophobic and angular environment seems to entrap both victims and aggressors, offering no escape from the pointless suffering.
Post-war society appeared to offer new opportunities to women, both professionally and socially, and Weimar’s famous cabaret scene, which welcomed gay men and women, posited a relaxing of conservative morals. Yet there was a sense among artists that these liberties came at the expense of weaker members of society, particularly war veterans. At the same time, women’s new economic and social power aroused antipathy among certain artists.
The central panel of Dix’s triptych Metropolis (1927–28) features a raucous nightclub scene in which an archetypal “new woman,” identified by her fashionable flapper outfit and closely cropped haircut, flaunts her newfound social freedom, while in the left and right panels, homeless, war-injured cripples are ignored by a series of gaudily attired prostitutes. In Grosz’s Suicide (1916), the action seems to have played out on a stage; the two men performed their deaths for the benefit of a prostitute, who gazes out indifferently from a curtained window.
Jeanne Mammen, At the Shooting Gallery, 1929. © DACS, 2018. Courtesy of Tate.
This antagonism towards women also manifests in the disturbingly prevalent lustmord (lust murder) genre that emerged during this time. Paintings such as Rudolf Schlichter’s The Artist with Two Hanged Women (1924) fetishize sexual violence against women while superficially condemning it.
In marked contrast, the work of Jeanne Mammen, a successful professional artist and quintessential “new woman,” shows “an awareness of the place that women were staking out in society,” Gale said. Independent and intelligent, Mammen’s women wait languidly for something to entertain them in Boring Dolls (1929) and offer their own critique of the war in At the Shooting Gallery (1929), in which a fairground assistant hands a gun to a male customer, her expression revealing an unreserved contempt for the damage she knows boys can wreak with their toys.
Although Dix produced works in the lustmord genre himself, he also offered one of the defining images of the liberated Weimar woman in his Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926). Like many artists of the time, Dix chose sitters who could portray certain archetypes. Harden’s androgynous appearance—her cropped hair and monocle are complemented by her insouciant manner and cigarette—was representative to Dix of an entire epoch. Christian Schad’s Self Portrait with Model (1927) incorporates another strikingly modern woman in an image that questions notions of identity and appearance. Both paintings show a fascination with Old Master techniques and conventions; many artists turned their attention to craftsmanship as a means of dealing with the chaos around them.
Why New Objectivity matters
With the rise of National Socialism, New Objectivity artists were condemned as “degenerate,” forced either to flee the country or live as quietly and inconspicuously as possible. After World War II, the realism they had espoused fell out of favor, partly because right-wing regimes had promoted their own sanitized version of it, and, as Gale explains, “because Socialist Realism seemed to be making it something flaccid and celebratory under the Soviets.”
New Objectivity was largely ignored until the late 1970s, when figurative painting was again in vogue. Artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud took up the mantle of the movement with a harsh new brand of existential realism.
New Objectivity’s abiding legacy, however, is the manner in which it turned its penetrative gaze to a uniquely turbulent period in history like no other art movement had before, or has since.