“It’s important to see things the way they are.” (Otto Dix)
Through their paintings they reacted to the traumatic experiences of World War I and a world out of joint: the artists of New Objectivity movement. “Brutality! Clarity that hurts! There’s enough music to fall asleep to! . . . Paint as fast as you can! – capture time as it races by . . .” George Grosz. Like many of his contemporaries, he distanced himself from the spiritual movements of painting, finding fault with their “wandering cloud tendencies,” and criticizing “their followers, musing over cubes and the Gothic, while the generals paint with blood.” Architects such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe strove for an objective, simple language of form, and discussed the social aspects of new architecture. Photographers such as Albert Renger-Patzsch and August Sander used the camera with “objective, sober eyes.” The New Objectivity painters “wanted to see things quite naked, clearly, almost without art,” said Otto Dix, one of the central figures of New Objectivity. A counter-movement to Expressionism, New Objectivity art is distinguished by its faithful, detailed reproduction of reality; a strict kind of composition, overly sharp drawing with dominant lines, and an exacting technique based on Old Master styles of painting were its stylistic trademarks. Preferred genres were the still life, paintings of (big) cities and architecture, and portraits, which often featured a modern type of woman—the emancipated “new woman” with bobbed hair and a cigarette. Also, the world of technology held a special fascination for these artists.
The term Neue Sachlichkeit (translated as New Objectivity) was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, an art historian and the Director of the Städtische Kunsthalle in Mannheim, which opened a groundbreaking exhibition titled Die neue Sachlichkeit. Deutsche Malerei seit dem Expressionismus (The New Objectivity: German Painting since Expressionism) in 1925. The show attracted great interest from both the public as well as from experts, and was so successful that it later toured through several cities in Saxony and Thuringia, making New Objectivity all the more popular.
As early as 1922 Hartlaub had described the “new naturalism” in the art of his time in a keen-sighted analysis: “I see a right wing and a left wing. The former conservative to classicist . . . the other, left wing, harshly contemporary . . . the true face of our time.”
The classicists—which, according to Hartlaub’s assessment, founded the “right wing” of New Objectivity, were influenced by Italian artists such as Carlo Carrà, Giorgio de Chirico, and the magazine Valori Plastici. Its adherents, such as the Munich painters Georg Schrimpf, Carlo Mense, and Alexander Kanoldt—were committed to a timeless, idyllic style and avoided aspects of social criticism.
The Verist movement, which comprised the “left wing,” was represented by artists such as George Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, and Christian Schad in Berlin, Otto Dix and Conrad Felixmüller in Dresden, and Karl Hubbuch, Georg Scholz, and Wilhelm Schnarrenberger in Karlsruhe. In paintings that were partly caricatured exaggerations and partly shocking, their cool, razor-sharp perspectives nailed their era and the miseries of conditions during the Weimar Republic. As witnesses or even prosecutors they showed the war profiteers and the war wounded, the wealth and poverty, the glamour and suffering of the not-so-Roaring Twenties. The works of some artists, such as Dix, display both classicist and Verist tendencies side-by-side, on equal footing.
Also in 1925 the art critic Franz Roh introduced the term “magical realism,” which competed for a while with the phrase “New Objectivity,” and today describes a third movement with echoes of Surrealism, one of whose prominent members was Franz Radziwill, who worked in the coastal city of Dangast, far away from the centers of European art. And despite their proximity to their subjects and the New Objectivity style, Frankfurt artist max Beckmann and Berlin artist Carl Hofer eventually developed their own special forms of art.
Thus, in terms of either geography or style, New Objectivity cannot be described as a unified art movement. Yet, despite its wide variety of individual figures, they all have the same time frame in common. New Objectivity began in 1918, immediately after the First World War, and it came to an irrevocable end in 1933, when the National Socialists came to power. The art of New Objectivity was soon severely judged; in October 1933 the Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, demanded “An end to the spirit of subversion . . . just as those ice-cold, completely un-German constructs carrying on under the name of New Objectivity must come to an end . . .” As a result, most of the New Objectivity artists lost their teaching positions and were forbidden to exhibit their work; some painters, such as Alexander Kanoldt or Georg Schrimpf, at first continued their work, accepted or even promoted by the Nazis. In 1937/38, however, the Nazis intensified their cultural policy of defaming artists, and even the works of Kanoldt and Schimpf were considered “degenerate” from then on. On the other hand, in 1933 the Düsseldorf painter Werner Peiner was called to a professorship of monumental painting at the Düsseldorf Akademie; he later became head of the Hermann Göring Meisterschule für Malerei (Hermann Göring Graduate School of Painting) in Kronenberg and was known as one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite painters.
A reassessment of the legacy of New Objectivity began in the 1960s, inspired by art movements such as Photorealism and Critical Realism. Additionally, realist, New Objectivity tendencies experienced a renaissance in East German painting in particular; however, in both East and West, its influence declined steadily until 1980.
At the moment there is great interest in the art of New Objectivity and its scholarly examination. In recent years works by major figures of this style have enjoyed increased interest; particularly in times of crisis the art of the Weimar Republic has a sometimes alarming significance and currency.
January 30, 2013 Stefanie Gommel