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The New Objectivity
Realism in Weimar-Era Germany

September 16, 1997 to November 08, 1997

The Galerie St. Etienne has always been interested in expanding the conventional parameters of German Expressionism by exploring various offshoots of the movement. This desire has naturally led us to devote a number of exhibitions to Expressionism's aftermath in the Weimar Republic. To date, most of these efforts have focused on the politically oriented art of the 1920s--work which, in its acerbic perspective and often satirical presentation, retains pronounced ties to the Expressionist and Dada sensibilities that immediately preceded it. The current exhibition, intended as a counterpoint to our prior shows, is devoted to Weimar's other side. The obsessive verisimilitude of this art may sometimes be jarring, but it is rarely overtly revolutionary.

Collectively, the disparate styles that emerged in Germany in the 1920s are grouped under the rubric Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). However, if Expressionism is already an amorphous concept, Neue Sachlichkeit is almost totally lacking in ideological or aesthetic coherence. It has no heroic artist-leaders, no significant artists' groups, no natural focus in a single city, no great manifesto or guiding philosophy. Rather, Neue Sachlichkeit grew from an inchoate need for stability following the political excesses of the immediate post-World-War-I years and the artistic excesses of Expressionism and Dada. By 1924, Germany's pseudo-socialist government had managed to subdue Communist and Nazi insurrections and stemmed a virulent inflationary cycle. Artists followed this return to order by forsaking the radical stylistic experiments of former years in favor of a more subdued rationalism grounded resolutely in the material world.

This aesthetic shift was evident as early as 1922, when a journalist referred to the emergent direction as the "new naturalism," and in 1923, Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, Director of the Mannheim Kunsthalle, began to solicit contributions for a "Neue Sachlichkeit" exhibition. It was this exhibition--which finally took place in 1925--that gave the style its name. Yet Hartlaub himself was the first to acknowledge that Neue Sachlichkeit was hardly a consistent phenomenon. He discerned within the art of the period two wings, which (not without an awareness of the political connotations) he designated the "left" and the "right." On the left, logically, he placed artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz, who had a serious engagement with revolutionary politics. This faction (also known as Verists, after a realist strain of Italian opera) tended toward greater stylistic radicalism, and strong trace elements of Dada and Expressionism remained in their work at least through the mid 1920s. The "right" wing, within which one might count such artists as Georg Schrimpf, favored a style that melded elements of early Renaissance Germanic realism with Surrealism.

However, this is not to suggest that the artists on the "right" were necessarily political conservatives. Barthel Gilles, for example, had a leftist political orientation but would probably fall toward the "right" end of the stylistic spectrum. Indeed, many of the more classically oriented Neue Sachlichkeit painters had ties to the radical Verists. Rudolf Schlichter was an artistic and political comrade of Grosz's, and Christian Schad had at one point in his career passed through a Dada phase. While Hartlaub's distinction is useful, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that, whereas many German artists retained vestiges of Expressionism and Dada through the mid 1920s, even the "leftists" had adopted a more realistic style by the latter part of the decade.

Although the 1925 Mannheim exhibition included work by both Verists and more traditional realists, the latter group predominated and subsequently came to be more closely associated with the term Neue Sachlichkeit. What united the two sides was their engagement in the here-and-now, and their concerted disavowal of the sort of mystical, subjective preoccupations and utopian ideals that had been the hallmarks of the earlier Expressionist generation. This disdain for the spiritual most clearly distinguishes the neo-realists from the Italian Surrealists, who otherwise served as a formative influence. The return to realism was an international trend that could be observed throughout Europe and the United States in the 1920s.

Neue Sachlichkeit artists strove to make their subjects anonymous and impersonal, and even their multitudinous portraits have little of the introspective soul-searching that characterizes Expressionist portraiture. These artists delineated a mundane world of limited possibilities and constrained circumstances absent any illusory promise of betterment. While the Verists, at least in their initial work, railed against injustice, later artists portrayed bitter situations in a dispassionate, "that's-just-the-way-it-is" manner. The quintessential Neue Sachlichkeit style was correspondingly cool in tone and approach. Objects were observed in minute detail and crisply rendered. There was almost no sign of the artist's touch or brush stroke on the slick, polished paint surfaces. Subjects appeared as though immured behind glass in claustrophobic, airless environments. These visual devices all contrived to keep the viewer at a distance while fostering the desired aura of objectivity.

And yet, despite its name, Neue Sachlichkeit was hardly objective. The elements of caricature and distortion typical of Grosz's and Dix's work also subtly permeated the creations of less belligerent artists. While conditions were relatively stabile in Germany in the mid 1920s, vast economic and social inequities remained. The bleakness or outright ugliness of so many Neue Sachlichkeit subjects surely implied a criticism of the prevailing state of affairs. Even when the attitude was more serene, figures were often strangely elongated and attenuated. The surreal aspects of the style, while eschewing any pronounced involvement with the realm of dreams and the subconscious, nevertheless lent certain paintings an ethereal, other-worldly quality. And the proliferation of portraits during this period bespeaks a lingering interest in the vagaries of human personality.

Reflecting its fragmented nature, Neue Sachlichkeit had no natural headquarters. Ignored for the most part within Germany's greatest metropolis, Berlin, the style flourished in the nation's smaller cities. Dresden, where Dix lived, became a center for many of the politically inspired Neue Sachlichkeit artists, including Conrad Felixmüller and Hans and Lea Grundig. Munich--Hitler's original power base--was, on the other hand, distinctly more conservative, and fostered such aesthetically "right-wing" painters as Schrimpf. Karlsruhe, also a relatively staid city and later the site of one of the first "Degenerate Art" exhibitions, favored strong draughtsmanship and was home to such artists as Karl Hubbuch. The Cologne-based "Group of Progressive Artists" (whose members included Heinrich Hoerle) attempted to vest art of its bourgeois associations by creating a neutral, schematic vocabulary of form. The neighboring city of Düsseldorf spawned the "Young Rheinland" group (a typically unfocused association of artists whose basic qualification was that they painted "young"), many of whom were represented by the legendary gallerist Johanna ("Mother") Ey. One of the closest-knit groups of Neue Sachlichkeit artists (numbering Gerta Overbeck-Schenk, Erich Wegner and others) could be found in Hannover, a commercial center not historically known for art.

The provincial orientation of Neue Sachlichkeit, as well as its ties to a conservative realist tradition with "ur-German" roots, suggests a connection between the aesthetic of the later 1920s and the Nazi era that was to follow. Hartlaub, in formulating the division between "left" and "right," made no attempt to conceal his preference for straightforward realism, which he rated far "healthier" than the formal "aberrations" of the Expressionists and Dadaists. While this attitude unintentionally anticipated that of Hitler, the Nazis on the whole did not prove great admirers of Neue Sachlichkeit, which they considered a minor offshoot of Weimar's despicable culture. A residue of '20s realism survived in Nazi depictions of the German landscape, family and peasantry, but few of the original Neue Sachlichkeit artists felt any affinity to the idealized Aryan content of such imagery. Their brand of realism had been of a cooler, harsher sort.

Most artistic styles are inherently neutral politically, and just as the Nazis absorbed certain aspects of Neue Sachlichkeit, they also drew upon the iconography of Soviet posters. Such styles reflected a then-current common pictorial language that could be adapted to any purpose. The fallacy of Neue Sachlichkeit lies not in the anticipation of Nazi ideology, but in its perpetuation of the illusion that there can ever be such a thing as "objectivity" in art. A hyper-real style purports to deliver literal truth, but the images of Neue Sachlichkeit were no more "true" than the Nazi's equally realistic depictions of happy, blond, blue-eyed families. As most of the left-wing Verists abandoned their commitment to political change, Neue Sachlichkeit became increasingly removed from the turbulent surrounding social environment. By portraying even the most brutal scenes without evident editorializing, these artists positioned themselves very deliberately, if precariously, on the fence. Their ice-cold style was in effect an attempt to freeze a situation that was actually in a state of chaotic flux: to forestall the inevitable plunge into the void.