Fränzi with Doll. 1910. Oil on canvas. The Serge Sabarsky Collection.
From Brücke to Bauhaus
Art in Germany, 1905-1933
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Germany, like much of Europe and the United States, underwent an extensive process of industrialization. Everywhere, industrialization produced enormous social and economic changes: a shift from a predominantly rural to an urban-oriented society, resulting in a displacement of peasants and farmers by factory workers, handicraft by mechanization; the advent of mass production, mass communications and mass culture; the rise of a new capitalist class that threatened traditional power hierarchies. Germany industrialized somewhat later and more rapidly than other countries, and the German people arguably were therefore more shaken by the concomitant social upheaval. The stresses of industrialization were further exacerbated in Germany by the fact that the nation, formerly an agglomeration of independent kingdoms, duchies and city-states, was only first unified in 1871. Reactions to modernity were therefore inexorably infused with a yearning for national identity.
This peculiar combination of circumstances in Germany created a distinctive, widespread ambivalence toward modernity. To the extent that the concept of nationhood depended on the identification of intrinsically German qualities that predated unification, Germans were inclined to look backward, rather than forward, for role models. To the extent that modern innovations came from abroad, they were denounced as un-deutsch (un-German). Nevertheless, by the early twentieth century Germany was one of the world's leading industrial powers. Capitalism was permeating every aspect of the economy, undermining the old system of aristocratic patronage, forcing fine artists to confront the market in unfamiliar ways, and generating previously unknown outlets for more commercially-minded artists in areas like graphic design, typography and advertising. Modernity was inescapable, but it set a paradoxical agenda: invent new yet entirely German forms of visual expression; create a new world while reconstituting the values of an idealized past.
German Expressionism was never a coherent style in the sense that Impressionism and Cubism were. In a myriad manifesti and polemics, artists put forth earnest theoretical programs, yet they for the most part left the visual specifics open to individual interpretation. Style followed intent, and artists tended to approach modernism as an intellectual problem. In so doing, they naturally assimilated various philosophical ideas that were then circulating in Germany at large. The belief in artists as spiritual emissaries, a grounding principle of the Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century, had been expanded by Friedrich Nietzsche into the concept of the Übermensch: an artistic "superman" who would liberate humankind from the materialistic strictures of bourgeois society. Revolutionary (not to say nihilistic) fervor, willful defiance of convention and a profound commitment to the spiritual in art were among the disparate facets of Expressionism that derived from Nietzsche’s writings. But perhaps the most important aspect of the Romantic/Nietzschean legacy was the belief that artistic leadership can transform society; that art is capable of saving the world.
In the concept of artistic salvation, however, lay an implicit contempt for things-as-they-are. Not only was it possible for a modern artist to reject modern society, in Germany this was almost a prerequisite for membership in the avant-garde. Validating a distinction first articulated by the influential sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies in 1887, many Germans associated Gesellschaft (society) with the dehumanizing influence of the contemporary metropolis, and Gemeinschaft (community) with the intimate bonds of kinship fostered by rural folkways. The two principal Expressionist groups, the Brücke (1905-1913) and the Blauer Reiter (1911-1914), incorporated the idea of Gemeinschaft in communal working arrangements and regular jaunts to countryside. The natural environment was an important touchstone for the German avant-garde, as it was for many ordinary citizens, who joined preservation societies and hiking groups in order to connect with the rural Heimat (homeland). Outdoor activities were central to the German youth movement, and the valorization of youth, which was identified with modernity and the new nation, was another element that the Expressionists culled from the Zeitgeist. "With a belief in continuing evolution, . . . we call together all youth," declared the Brücke artists in their Programme. "We intend to obtain freedom of movement and of life for ourselves in opposition to older, well-established powers."
The Brücke group was founded by four architecture students, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, in Dresden in 1905. Aside from the fact that there are many bridges in Dresden, the name Brücke (bridge) suggests several potent interpretations. Most often cited is a quote from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "What is great in man is that he is a bridge not a goal." The Brücke artists saw themselves simultaneously as a bridge to the future and a bridge between Germany and the rest of the world. During the eight years of its existence, the Brücke group was extremely energetic, promoting itself by organizing no fewer than 70 exhibitions and publishing an annual print portfolio, paid for by "passive" members who contributed twelve Marks. The founding artists also solicited "active" members from Germany and abroad, the best known of whom are Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein (who both joined in 1906) and Otto Mueller (who joined in 1910). Nolde, a loner more than ten years older than most of the other members, resigned in 1907, as did Bleyl, who married that year.
The Brücke 's Künstlergemeinschaft (artists' community) was an attempt, in Kirchner's words, "to bring art and life into harmony with each other." The artists' work was from the outset ideologically inflected and endowed with double or triple metaphorical meanings. A landscape could evoke, simultaneously or separately, an Edenic state of nature, a healthful outdoor life or an antidote to urban decadence. The "primitivism" favored by both the Brücke and the Blauer Reiter likewise offered an escape from the taint of civilization, as well as an "authentic," non-Western formal vocabulary. Nudity connoted primeval innocence, health, youth and shameless pleasure. The revival of woodcut, an art form central to the Brücke enterprise, was a deliberate attempt to reference Germany's medieval past, thereby giving modernism a Germanic foundation. Although it is clear that the Brücke artists were influenced by Cezanne and the French Fauves, the Germans took pains to distance themselves from such foreign sources, preferring instead to cite role models like Dürer and Cranach. While "Expressionism" was a label used mostly by critics and dealers, and accepted uneasily or not at all by many artists, it was nonetheless the first distinctly German art movement.
In 1908, Pechstein moved to Berlin, but he rejoined his Brücke comrades for their summer excursions to the Moritzburg lake district outside Dresden and hosted them when they visited the German capital. There was no question that Berlin was quickly becoming the center of the nation's art market, and in 1911 Heckel, Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff moved there too. However, in this more competitive commercial environment, discord soon developed among the artists. In 1912, Pechstein left the Brücke after agreeing to exhibit at the Berlin Secession, which two years earlier had refused to show the rest of the group. In 1913, Kirchner resigned after penning a history of the Brücke that the others found self-serving. Shortly thereafter, the organization officially disbanded. It is ironic and perhaps fitting that the Brücke, with its fervent desire to take contemporary society back to its primordial roots, should have been done in by the modern metropolis.
Creators active in the applied arts had, of necessity, a more practical and therefore a more positive attitude toward industrialization than did their colleagues in the fine arts. Recognizing that industrialization had severed the link between design and production that existed in traditional workshops and had simultaneously destroyed the guild system that previously educated artisans, Germans established Kunstgwerbemuseen (arts and crafts museums) and loosely affiliated Kunstgwerbeschülen (arts and crafts schools) to showcase exemplary products and train young designers. Design collectives such as the Vereinigte Werkstätten für Kunst im Handwerk (United Workshops for Art in Handicraft), founded in Munich in 1897, connected artists and craftsmen with sympathetic consumers. Under the patronage of the Grand Duke of Hesse, a design-oriented artists' colony, replete with its own state-of-the art housing, was established in 1899 at Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt. Karl Ernst Osthaus, the son of a wealthy banker, likewise used his hometown of Hagen as a site for architectural experimentation and sent his design collection traveling cross-country to educate businessmen in matters of taste. Perhaps the key organization uniting designers and industry, however, was the Deutsche Werkbund (German Work Federation), founded in 1907 with official government support.
While some of the aforementioned ventures incorporated aspects of the utopian Künstlergemeinschaft, they all shared a commercial core, united in the belief that good design was central to the competitive success of German industry. Like their counterparts in the fine arts, designers felt charged with the task of creating forms that were both modern and distinctly German. Even typefaces had nationalistic implications: Fraktur, thought to emulate the flow of the ancient quill, was considered the ur-German letterform, whereas the more geometrical Roman fonts used throughout the rest of Europe were branded un-deutsch. Bowing to the necessity of international legibility, Lucian Bernhard invented a typeface, Antiqua, that combined aspects of both styles. The Deutsche Werkbund, as the first national organization of its kind, was especially conscious of issues pertaining to German identity. Hermann Muthesius, the Werkbund’s chairman from 1910 to 1916, believed that shoddy goods were contributing to the degeneration of German society, and he proposed uniform design standards to safeguard quality and to promote German brand recognition abroad.
The concept of branding--the creation of a comprehensive identity for a product or company--resonated deeply for many Germans. Branding became the corporate face of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), an idea first mooted by the composer Richard Wagner in the nineteenth century. For Wagner, opera--melding music, acting, literature and the visual arts--was the quintessential Gesamtkunstwerk. For designers, a Gesamtkunstwerk could be any coordinated environment or object: as large as a city, as small as a beautifully crafted book. The community at Mathildenhöhe, which the contemporary art historian Julius Meier-Graefe likened to "a fairy-tale in the ideal kingdom," was such a Gesamtkunstwerk, a place where creators in all branches of the arts were invited to live and work together in harmony. It is surprising how easily this idealistic conception, with its implicit promise of enlightenment through art, could be turned to commercial ends. Peter Behrens, one of the principal architects at Mathildenhöhe, later created a visual identity for the electrical company A.E.G. that included factories, showrooms, product design, typography and advertising.
Insofar as graphic design was a denominator common to diverse branches of the applied arts, it functioned as the glue that held the Gesamtkunstwerk together. Graphics, the foundation of advertising, also constituted the public face of German design. To compete with Paris, the leader in modern poster production, a Verein der Plakatfreunde (Society of Friends of the Poster) was established in Berlin in 1905, followed by an ancillary magazine, Das Plakat, in 1910. Germany, the birthplace of lithography, had a particularly well developed printing industry, and printers, rather than ad agencies, usually intermediated between clients and artists. Although they were sometimes collected as art objects, posters served a fundamentally commercial purpose. They had to conform to the format suggested by specially constructed advertising pillars and to compete visually with other posters as well as with the general bustle of urban life. Lucian Bernhard, artistic advisor to both the Verein der Plakatfreunde and the prestigious art printers Hollerbaum und Schmidt, pioneered the distinctive Sachplakat (object poster): a bold, bright sheet featuring a single image. Using up to sixteen separate lithographic stones to achieve complex, intensely saturated colors, the Sachplakat transformed products into desirable commodities that spoke for themselves.
Modernity’s inexorable ascendancy continued apace in the difficult years following World War I. It was clear that economic survival demanded success in the international marketplace, and German efforts could not be compromised by archaic forms of nationalism, escapism or ambivalence toward industrialization. Given the privations induced by the war, people of all political persuasions looked to technology to provide them with a better life. The idea of art-for-art's-sake and the introspective musings of the Expressionists, too, were passé. In place of impractical idealism, Germans lauded Sachlichkeit: a term usually translated as "objectivity" that also, however, connotes rationality and realism. Putting their faith in the ostensibly socialist government of the fledgling Weimar Republic, most artists, fine and applied, saw social engagement as an urgent priority. The masses, rather than the corrupt bourgeoisie, were the target audience; the collective, rather than the individual, was the guiding force.
Despite the German art scene's palpable shift in emphasis, the belief that art could change the world survived, if anything stronger than before. In the heady days following the overthrow of Germany's imperial regime in 1918, three major artists' coalitions--the Novembergruppe (November Group) and Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Worker’s Council for Art) in Berlin, and the Dresdener Sezession--Gruppe 19 in Dresden--were formed to shape the cultural policy of the new republic. Eschewing the preciousness of oil painting, artists focused on producing prints, which could be distributed to a wider, less affluent audience. Artistic subject matter, too, reflected the realities of the common citizen, the corruption of the war and the suffering it had produced at home. United in the pursuit of social betterment and justice, artists of the Weimar period, like their prewar predecessors, refrained from endorsing any one style. Vestiges of Expressionism lingered alongside caricature, classical realism and photo-montage.
Pretensions to Sachlichkeit notwithstanding, German artists remained idealists at heart. It was perhaps inevitable that more forthright political involvement would eventually transform this idealism into bitterness. The Weimar regime was quick to betray its socialist aspirations, frequently siding with rightwing militarists and leaving capitalist war profiteers safely ensconced in positions of privilege. George Grosz, a potent critic of what he facetiously dubbed "the pillars of society," was subjected to two censorship trials. When it came to artists with political inclinations, the new regime proved no more tolerant of expressive freedom than the old one. The art of the Weimar period was ultimately a record of dashed hopes. The city figured in the work of Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix more prominently, but no more positively, than it had in prewar art. The metropolis was a nexus of moral and spiritual debasement; the ubiquitous prostitute emblematic of a culture in which everything, even human beings, had its price. So grim, indeed, was the view of society presented by Weimar-era artists that even the Communist party--with which many of these artists sympathized--distanced itself from the work. The proletariat was not fooled by artists’ expressions of socialist solidarity, which hardly masked their innate elitism.
In German artists' self-imposed mandate to save the world lay the assumption that they were qualified to do so, and the conviction that ordinary folk should bow to their superior taste and wisdom. Among the various organizations formed during the Weimar period to lead the German public to artistic enlightenment, the most influential and longest-lived was probably the Bauhaus. Established in Weimar in 1919 under the leadership of the architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus amalgamated a previously existing School of Fine Arts and Kunstgewerbeschule. Combining the fine and the applied arts in its curriculum, the Bauhaus was yet another incarnation of the Gesamtkunstwerk, with architecture as the overriding framework. Gropius exhorted his students to "conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith." Shades of the old Künstlergemeinschaft were evoked by the Bauhaus's workshop structure, wherein "masters" and "apprentices" collaborated toward a common goal. Continuing the prewar quest to reunite design with production, each workshop at first had two "masters": an artist and a craftsman.
The Gesamtkunstwerk and the kindred leveling of art and craft were ideals that much of the prewar avant-garde had readily accepted. However, craft was one thing, industry another. The artists who taught at the Bauhaus included several former members of the Blauer Reiter group, most notably its leader, Wassily Kandinsky, as well as Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee. Feininger in particular looked on in dismay as the Bauhaus, abandoning its early idealism, tilted more and more in the direction of industry. "A genuine technologist will quite correctly refuse to enter into artistic questions," he wrote, "and . . . the greatest technical perfection can never replace the divine spark of art." Nevertheless, functional design was the Bauhaus's raison d'etre, and there were critics who felt the school did not go far enough in accommodating modern technological advances. To this end, Gropius in 1923 put the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy in charge of the foundation curriculum. The principles most closely associated with the Bauhaus were articulated in a 1925 statement that endorsed the "affirmation of the living environment of machines and vehicles," the use of "primary forms and colors readily accessible to everyone," the "economical use of space, material, time and money" and "the creation of standard types for all practical commodities." By crafting a design ethic geared to mass production, the Bauhaus created a unique language of form for the modern age.
Yet the Bauhaus could not indefinitely contain the contradictions that had from the outset characterized German attitudes toward modernity. The school’s history reflects deep-seated conflicts between idealism and practicality, "pure" art and commercialism, individual creativity and uniform standards. Ironically, although many members of the Bauhaus staff were socialists, designing for industry inevitably put them in league with capitalist interests. As had happened earlier in the twentieth century, German art became ideologically inflected, this time to more sinister ends. The right-wing National People’s Party, determined to oust the Bauhaus from Weimar, accused the school of damaging German culture by privileging design over art and of "favoring elements alien to the race [i.e., Jews] over German nationals." Weimar eventually stopped funding the Bauhaus, and in 1925 it moved to Dessau, a larger, more industrially advanced city that initially seemed preferable. The Nazis, who acquired a majority in the Dessau parliament in 1931, chased the Bauhaus to Berlin, where it survived as a private institution until 1933, when Hitler took over the national government and closed the school permanently. The charges leveled against the Bauhaus, and modern art in general, echoed an old refrain: the work was un-deutsch; it was degenerate; it was toxic to German society. Like the German avant-garde, the Nazis believed in the transformative power of art, and they were therefore determined to control it.