Carl Grossberg and New Objectivity
In June 1925, Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub opened an era-defining exhibition in the Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim titled “New Objectivity – German Painting since Expressionism,” which now counts as one of the most important ‘stations of the modern’ in Germany. Through this exhibition, the term New Objectivity established itself as the label for the realistic and representational, but stylistically and thematically very heterogeneous, kind of painting that had become widespread after the First World War. This concept can thus be thought of as one of agreement and consensus, a concept that tried to capture a phenomenon of the times while conferring the buzzword of objectivity onto painting. Fundamentally, however, it was a disenchanted and disillusioned mental state of objectivity that reached into all areas of life and took in parallel artistic manifestations, such as functionalistic Bauhaus architecture, film, the New Seeing in contemporary photography, as well as literature, music and philosophy. After the experiences of the First World War and the early failure of the utopian attempt at a political revolution in Germany, people were trying to face facts in the newly-founded democracy.
When used for the narrow field of painting, the term New Objectivity hardly functions satisfactorily as a stylistic term. Yet it has been frequently used up to now in this context amongst the disciples of the important critic Franz Roh and his categorical juxtaposition from 1925 of Expressionism versus Post-expressionism (Magical Realism/New Objectivity). The very individual career paths of its protagonists, the absence of a centre of New Objective style in the heterogeneous cultural landscape of the 1910s and 1920s in Germany and the lack of a manifesto-like, group-forming founding theory of painting made it impossible from the outset, however, to sketch a unifying picture of New Objectivity’s style. New Objectivity describes, rather, an artistic reaction, a reaction chiefly against Expressionism and against abstraction, which tends towards the non-objective.
Museum man Hartlaub took the heterogeneity of this new painting into account from the very beginning when, on the subject of affiliations, he stated in his catalogue introduction: “Thus two groups informally came into being. One – you could almost call it a ‘left wing’ – wresting the representational from the world of contemporary fact and bursting out with reality in all its pace and heat; the other group searching, rather, for a timelessly-relevant subject, in order to attain the eternal laws of existence in the realm of art. The former were called ‘Verists’ and one could almost call the latter Classicists, but both labels are only imprecise and could easily lead once again to the supremacy of artistic terminology over the richness of its material manifestations. In fact, Hartlaub’s qualms about a rash definition of the term need to be emphasised, as his primary concern in the Mannheim exhibition was to document a new, post-Expressionist representation in painting that brought together such diverse painters as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Alexander Kanoldt and Georg Schrimpf. Hartlaub had put forward the ‘two wings division’ discussed above as early as 1922 in his survey “A New Naturalism?” in Paul Westheim's journal Kunstblatt. He had prepared his Mannheim exhibition a long way in advance and had actually wanted to open it already in 1923, but had then had to push it back by two years to 1925. Carl Grossberg, who had first gone back to studying again after the war, was still unknown because of his somewhat meagre artistic output in the early 1920s and he was not included in the exhibition. Before the First World War he had first studied Architecture in Aachen and then at the technological university in Darmstadt. In January 1915 his education was interrupted for a long while by his being called up for military service. Then from mid-1919 until 1921, Grossberg studied under the painter Lyonel Feininger at the Bauhaus in Weimar and after that he moved to Würzburg, where he would later live in one of the city’s towers with his family. It is particularly Grossberg’s early cityscapes, painted between 1919 and 1923, that demonstrate the influence of the Bauhaus and of Feininger’s cityscapes in their compositions that emphasise simplified, elementary, geometrical shapes, without however adopting the latter’s expressive-cubist creative character. Grossberg’s works, in comparison to Feininger’s, have the effect of stiff, somewhat rough model landscapes in cases, ones constructed by oversized children’s hands, and they reflect his original interest in architecture. In the second half of the 1920s Grossberg developed into one of the leading painters of New Objectivity, whose drawings and paintings represent it in an almost textbook manner. In 1926 he had his first solo exhibition at the gallery of Karl Nierendorf, who at the time was one of the leading art dealers in Germany and who had created a legendary name for himself chiefly because he represented Otto Dix. The following year, Grossberg’s relationship to New Objectivity was made clear in the context of a collective movement for the first time when he took part in the important 1927 group exhibition on the theme in the joint Berlin gallery of Nierendorf and the tireless promoter of Beckmann, Israel Ber Neumann, to whose catalogue Franz Roh contributed an essay. Two years later Grossberg was included in the exhibition on New Objectivity at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and his work was thus seen for the first time on an international stage. From then on, representative works of his were shown in every important exhibition on the topic.
In the 1920s, Grossberg first further systematically developed his cityscapes, often devoid as they were of human beings. From 1923 and its Factory Landscape in the Snow they took on ever more complex forms and culminated in Bridgehead on The Old Main Bridge from 1928, with its architectural forms piled one on top of another. He even stuck with this first leitmotif in his work into the 1930s. But in doing so he consistently developed the theme further and the stronger influence of photography became apparent. Shifted and skewed cityscapes and roofscapes are depicted from a bird’s eye view or in a strict plan view and their unconventional perspectives and layering are reminiscent of the New Seeing in avant-garde photography in the Weimar Republic – see, for example, Würzburg Roofs from 1930/35 or Marktbreit from the year 1931. His interest in contemporary advertising, in house walls painted with advertising slogans, which played a significant role for Grossberg in the 1920s, now receded into the background and disappeared.
Wieland Schmied made an attempt in his standard work on New Objectivity to characterise it as a style and to examine it in light of its themes. The implicit problematics of this were alluded to from the outset, yet his overall observations are particularly pertinent to Grossberg: “The art of New Objectivity can be characterised by five defining elements: (1) the plainness and sharpness of the view, an unsentimental way of seeing largely free of emotion; (2) the direction of the gaze onto the everyday, the banal, onto unimportant and unassuming subjects, the lack of reserve when confronted with the ‘ugly’; (3) a static, firmly-established pictorial structure that often suggests an almost glassy vacuum, and the general preference for the static over the dynamic; (4) the eradication of all traces of the painting process and the freeing of the painting from all evidence of mark-making; and (5), finally, through a new intellectual examination of the material world. However, as objective as New Objectivity appeared to be, it was by no means so. Exactly this supposed emotionlessness in the face of the world of things produced new fears and a feeling of alienation. Objectivity could turn into irrationality, because the forced examination of things took place in the 1920s against the backdrop of a disrupted consciousness of this reality. “The paradoxical situation arose in which painting sacrificed itself to a cult of things without having a reality, without having a consciousness of reality.” The “new intellectual examination of the material world” was in no way neutral but it was, rather, a desperate attempt to make certain of reality once again, to reconstruct it. This explains the sometimes extreme compositional tensions in the works of New Objectivity, of which Grossberg’s oeuvre offers some outstanding examples. In them is aesthetically inscribed this moment of desperation and the material immanence of the image that arises from it, which can only be achieved through painting.
Alongside his group of works on cityscapes, from 1925 onwards Grossberg completed a series of so-called dream pictures, which came close now and then to the Surrealism at that time in Paris. No more than a total of between eight and ten paintings of this type can have been completed before the artist’s untimely death in 1940; one work only begun in 1939 remained unfinished. In these dream pictures, Grossberg combines strongly aligned architectural elements that defy spatial logic – reminiscent of the ‘metaphysical paintings’ of Giorgio di Chirico – with animals (apes, birds), plants, antiquated machines, statues of saints, Adam and Eve, using as his model the work of the wood carver Tilman Riemenscheider, and the most up-to-date technical equipment.
Yet these paintings are actually not as illogically put together as the aesthetic orthodoxy of Surrealism would have us believe. A famous example, “Steam Boiler with Bat” from 1928, clearly demonstrates this and leads us on to the central artistic question for Grossberg: that of technology. The painting is without doubt one of Grossberg’s and New Objectivity’s most famous works. The picture depicts an engine boiler resting on a wooden construction set in a rudimentary and coldly alienating architectural space, tending towards the extreme left of the composition. In the sky on the upper left there is a bat with outspread wings and on the lower left a bat-like flying fox is clambering around a pipe. The work was painted in 1928, the four hundredth anniversary of Dürer’s death, which was observed all over Germany, and quite clearly refers in its composition and in its individual elements to that artist’s print masterpiece, Melancholia I (1514). One can in no way describe this specific case as a surrealist dream picture that adheres to automatism, as Grossberg very consciously re-appropriated individual elements of Dürer’s etching or substituted them in a meaningful way. The two animals make the adaptation of the etching more than clear, and the higher-up bat is positioned in exactly the same place in the painting as the one that appears holding the title in Dürer’s sheet. And the curled-up dog lying at the feet of the Genius, contemplative Melancholy, has now been replaced with a lively, dog-like animal that is stacking up bricks and grasping a pipe with a malign look in its eyes.
The switching of the figures for the steam boiler is of central importance to the interpretation of Grossberg’s work. Dürer’s brooding, idling, winged figure that is becoming aware of its own intellectual limits is replaced in the painting by a symbol for the consequences of this thirst for knowledge. The figure of Melancholy, whose iconography contained within itself both the melancholy temperament and geometry that is founded on mathematics, is usurped by a symbol of the first Industrial Revolution, the steam boiler. In the place of cause, Genius wrestling for knowledge, appears the consequences of this endeavour to a certain extent, a symbol for modern technology and industry. Through emphasising the isolation of this steam boiler placed on its fragile base of squared timbers, the boiler itself becomes an object of thought, of concrete reflection. With Grossberg, de-contextualising isolation is one of the defining features of his engagement with technology. The viewer looking at the picture can reflect for himself on the emergence and consequences of technology, in other words the process of a technological revolution as seen through its ambivalent interpretation by a melancholy temperament.
That Grossberg approached technology, which without a doubt fascinated him, with decidedly mixed feelings can be read clearly in his works. The impressive painting “White Pipes” from 1933 depicts in a simple, once again isolating space a complex network of valves, pipes and ducts. The title of the work touches on the fact that the painter has left certain areas of the system blank, i.e. parts of the dark metal system of pipes have been replaced by white elements, which look like blank spaces or missing sections. The system laid out before the viewer’s eyes is thus rendered incomprehensible and the white pipes look like the blank areas on a map that still need to be reconnoitred. The painting gradually descends from the first impression it gives of a fascinating, detailed depiction of industry to a much deeper-lying layer of sinister threat and a confusing lack of understanding in the face of technology, whose origins, meaning and finally purpose cannot be deciphered as far as the painting is concerned. An uncritical enthusiasm for technology has always been asserted for New Objectivity when you look at Americanism (Fordism/Taylorism) and its period of stabilisation in the Weimar Republic (1924-1928). However, against the backdrop of the economic crisis of the later Weimar years Grossberg articulates, amongst other things, a fundamental unease in the face of technology.
Yet despite this negative assessment of our engagement with technology, whose enigmatic character and potential threat are emblematic, it must be emphasised that Grossberg by no means had a biased or spurning attitude towards modern technology and industrial progress. With his eye on a potential move to the United States, Grossberg formulated his chief artistic concerns in a letter from the end of 1933 as “to translate the vast world of forms of the technology of our times into the world of painting.” Grossberg had his first large-scale opportunity to do this in 1932 when, at an extraordinarily difficult time financially, he received a commission from the consul August Brinckman in Hamburg to paint five oil-paintings of industrial plants in Hamburg-Harburg, which he completed the following year.
One of these paintings is titled “White Smoke” and depicts once again an enigmatic and latently threatening scene. The viewer looks on to a reddish-coloured industrial complex; barrels are piled up on the company site and two small male figures, who are marked out as engineers or laboratory workers with their white overalls, stand out clearly against the walls of the building. A small cloud of white smoke escapes from a chimney directly above them and Grossberg has once again created through composition and colouration a relationship that one can hardly fail to perceive between the workers and the consequences or traces of the processes of technology. And once again the whole pictorial structure looks to art history. In the two small figures with whom the viewer can identify, “White Smoke” follows the Romantic landscape painting of Caspar David Friedrich. However, and this emerges as the crucial thing about the work, there is no landscape at all in the painting. Landscape – in the sense of its traditional definition as unappropriated and free nature to which mankind must open himself up as he leaves the security of the city behind – has been replaced by an industrial complex full of nooks and crannies outside the city gates. Mankind has appropriated nature completely for himself and has substituted it with a second nature. Grossberg is able to conjure this in his painting by bringing up to date the Romantic tradition of landscape painting.
Amongst the indisputable contributions and achievements of Grossberg’s work is that it advanced a clear critical reflection of technology through specific aesthetic strategies such as isolation, reduction and alienation, as well as through the appropriation and reinterpretation of long-established pictorial formulations. Grossberg delivers no simple stock-taking of technology or of large-scale technological complexes of the kind the well-known American painter and photographer Charles Sheeler undertook at almost the same time, using Ford’s production plants as his model.
Sheeler’s work, which Grossberg discussed, tended early on towards a form of photorealism, although the substitution of landscape for an industrial landscape, i.e. an “elimination of nature” (Oskar Bätschmann) can also be observed in it. But he spelled this out through the titles of his pictures, such as “American Landscape” (1939) or “Classic Landscape” (1931), rather than through a reflexive aesthetic strategy, which in Grossberg’s case is present in his subverting appropriation of the Romantic landscape.
Grossberg had one or two things planned for his possible emigration to America. He would have become a direct competitor of Sheeler’s there. In his letter from the 6th December 1933 quoted above, addressed to the singer Claire Dux who had emigrated to Chicago and married into money, he attempted to obtain a commission for one or two paintings with which he would then launch a very much larger project: “Such a commission would give me the opportunity to set about realising a major plan that I have long harboured. I want to produce a cross-section through the standard achievements of American industry in twenty large paintings and exhibit this group once it is completed in the larger cities of the United States.” Grossberg had also envisaged such a plan for Germany, but it failed because of a lack of support. Also, the political situation had changed decisively with the coming to power of the National Socialists.
Grossberg’s fate in the Third Reich represents an interesting case study that challenges common perceptions of New Objectivity. As a rule, the paintings of New Objectivity have always been identified with the democratic art of the Weimar Republic, which has only been reappraised through more recent art historical research.
Numerous studies and exhibitions on the theme are only exclusively interested in the years from 1918 to 1933 and this is questionable for two reasons. For one, New Objectivity’s crucial phase of development is then not taken into account. Contrary to the general view, the phenomenon of New Objectivity begins between 1912 and 1915 with a kind of self-criticism and division in the artistic avant-garde. The conflicts between Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky on the one hand and between Max Beckmann and Alexander Kanoldt on the other are particularly good examples of this. For another, people have also long shied away from examining the question of the continuation of New Objectivity in the Third Reich and the Grossberg retrospective of 1994-95 also rather avoided this problem. In the context of this exhibition, which presents drawings from the years up to 1938, the question needs however to be briefly addressed. Astonishingly, for Wieland Schmied, one of the pioneers of the study of New Objectivity, the problem simply did not present itself. In his standard work it merely says: “When the end of New Objectivity also came in 1933 with the bringing in of measures of artistic persecution by the dictatorship of the Third Reich, it was already past its peak [...]. For not a few of the artists of New Objectivity, the only exhibition that they were part of between 1933 and 1945 was the exhibition of “Degenerate Art” in Munich in 1937. Only a few could continue working relatively unhindered without relinquishing their style or adapting themselves: Grossberg († 1940), Kanoldt († 1939), Schrimpf († 1938), as their works from the point of view of the new cultural politics offered the least target. The great period of their painting was admittedly behind them.”
The views and implications expressed above have been thoroughly revised through the research work done over the last decade, but they nevertheless influenced to a large extent the common perception of New Objectivity and were, above all, repeated essentially unchanged in the most recent more major exhibitions on the theme. At any rate, big solo exhibitions were arranged for Carl Grossberg in 1934 in Hannover, Bochum and Düsseldorf, in Essen in 1935 and in Wuppertal and Dortmund in 1942, right in the middle of the hail of bombs of the Second World War. Schmied is without doubt right on one point: Grossberg had in fact not adapted his style to the supposed – but in actual fact very diverse – ‘style’ of the dictatorship and the exhibitions mentioned above thus need all the more of an explanation. Grossberg’s works of New Objectivity, bound to a cold and ambivalently fractured aesthetic of precision would be unimaginable in a “Great German Art Exhibition” in Munich. His exhibitions can rather be explained through local conditions within a fragmented state structure that offered surprisingly many corners to hide in. There was often a tension between the daily reality of National Socialism and the self-styling of the regime’s propaganda. Schmied’s assertion that Grossberg’s best period was already behind him when the National Socialists came to power at the beginning of 1933 is barely sustainable, as ultimately he painted some of his best works during the Third Reich. The five paintings for Consul Brinckman mentioned above all come exclusively from the year 1933. Moreover, the preparatory drawings and watercolours for several paintings from around 1936-38 that could not be completed because of the situation at the time signal an unbroken production of a high standard. Grossberg adapted himself neither stylistically nor thematically and he was in no way idealistically influenced by Nazism. In the mid-1930s he depicted a seating area with tubular steel chairs in the by then banned Bauhaus and in another painting he depicted ant-like, emphatically unheroic workers working on the steel framework of a building. Further, in 1936 he showed himself to be deeply appalled by the case of the sculptor Arno Breker and the extent of his currying of favour with the new regime.
Yet there was a brief moment when the painter, because of his enthusiasm for technology and his artistic desire to fulfil his ‘industrial plan’, made himself available to the regime without sharing its ideological concerns. With the aid of assistants, Grossberg created within three weeks an approximately 350-square-metre mural for the exhibition hall of the 1934 propaganda show “German People – German Work” at a time when countless artists and art dealers still cherished the illusion that modern artists would be able to lead more than merely a niche existence within the polycratic National Socialist state. A sketch for this giant picture still survives and it is a view onto a panoramic industrial landscape with gigantic, tower-like blast furnaces and smoking chimneys at its centre. The mural, which for Grossberg must have represented a kind of apotheosis of his industrial plan, was inevitably in the context of the exhibition a powerful demonstration of the supposed industrial might of the Third Reich, of a new state that seemed to be on the way up and that had overcome the economic weakness of the Weimar period’s “system”.
This episode – which should not be deliberately suppressed, but which must necessarily be addressed in any attempt at a deeper understanding of the artist Carl Grossberg and of the cultural politics of the Third Reich, long ambivalent and self-contradictory – appears to be a one-off. But together with Grossberg’s solo exhibitions from 1933 onwards, mentioned above, this episode does make it clear that any serious reappraisal of the history of New Objectivity must do away with handed-down notions and with historical boundaries and attempt to pose and to answer the question of continuity each time on a case-by-case basis. Carl Grossberg’s unique artistic importance within New Objectivity seems to me to be untouched by this. Within the specific medium of his preparatory, clarifying and intensifying drawings and watercolours, as well as his paintings that appear stripped-down and yet are frequently deeply unsettling, he engaged with technology in a genuine way.