Weimar Germany has long fascinated contemporary audiences, inspiring popular interpretations like the hit musical Cabaret and the Metropolitan Museum’s acclaimed 2006 exhibition “Glitter and Doom.” The combination of unchecked libertinism and present-day awareness of the impending Holocaust holds the dramatic appeal of a well-crafted horror movie. The most compelling images of Weimar decadence are invariably tinged with presentiments of decay and destruction. Weimar-era artists appear to share with their future public knowledge of a fate they are powerless to forestall. Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz had different ideas about art and its proper function within society, but together these three men captured the spirit of their time with exceptional force and cogency.
Unlike the earlier Expressionists, Weimar-era artists did not congregate in aesthetically oriented collectives such as the Blauer Reiter or Brücke. They drifted in and out of loose association with one another or, like Grosz, made alliances that were more political than artistic. Pinning a label on this disparate group of creators is not easy, and the museum director Gustav Hartlaub, who coined the term Neue Sachlichkeit, knew from the outset that his formulation was imperfect. Hartlaub divided Neue Sachlichkeit artists into two camps. The “Verists,” based largely in the urban north, were interested in documenting contemporary social phenomena. The “Magic Realists,” oriented both geographically and stylistically toward the south, favored a revival of Italian classicism. The two groups were aligned, respectively, with the political left and the right; the Magic Realists would easily accommodate Nazi tastes.
Neue Sachlichkeit is a more elastic concept than its common English translation, New Objectivity, suggests. Sachlich means “realistic,” but also “matter-of-fact,” “to-the-point,” “fundamental.” The “objectivity” in question might best be characterized as the object-ness of a subject: not only its palpable substance, but its essential being. Verists such as Beckmann, Dix and Grosz strove to see beyond visible realities, into the inherent nature of things. The artist was an interpretive vehicle, communicating between the depths and the surface. But inasmuch as the artist was also a subjective human being, there was no true objectivity involved.
Military service during World War I was the singular formative experience for Beckmann, Dix and Grosz, as it was for many Weimar-era artists. Initially, war had an elemental grandeur that attracted young men steeped in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. “Just as I consciously pursue the terror of sickness and lust, love and hate to their fullest extent,” Beckmann wrote home from the Front, “so I’m trying to do now with this war.” After about six months working as a medical orderly in Belgium, Beckmann suffered a nervous breakdown and was mustered out of service. Grosz, too, lasted only a few months before succumbing to a combination of emotional and physical illness; he managed to sit out the rest of the war on medical leave. Only Dix seemed impervious to the strains of total war, volunteering for combat duty and eventually training as a fighter pilot. “War… must be regarded as a natural event,” he wrote. “You have to see human beings in this unbridled state to know something about them.”
World War I was a visceral expression of modernity’s destructive force, with implications that far transcended the boundaries of the battlefield. The war made a mockery of traditional Judeo-Christian morality and rent asunder long-established aristocratic regimes in Russia, Germany and Austria. Grosz, who had a deeply ingrained antiauthoritarian streak, viewed the war and its aftermath as a scathing indictment of what he called the “pillars of society”: the Church, the military and the capitalist bourgeoisie. He pinned his hopes on Communism, joining the Party in December 1918. Beckmann believed that the moral authority once vested in religion had been ceded to art and that if he could create honest depictions of the human predicament, people would be inspired to change. Dix had no such faith in the possibility of political or spiritual redemption. The world was brutalized and brutal; he called it as he saw it and enjoyed provoking outrage for its own sake.
Artists faced the challenge of giving visual coherence to a world that no longer made sense. Of the various prewar styles, Cubism seemed to correlate best with the fragmented nature of modern existence. Cubist elements animate Dix’s battlefield drawings and can be detected as well in the jagged planes and skewed perspectives of Beckmann’s and Grosz’s work from the late ‘teens and early 1920s. However, even before World War I the relationship between what the art historian Wilhelm Worringer identified as “abstraction and empathy” had posed an aesthetic conundrum. The Blauer Reiter artists laid claim to abstraction as a bridge to the spiritual, but Beckmann saw both German and French abstraction as an arid cul-de-sac. To evoke empathy, he believed, an artist needed to retain ties to recognizable reality. Beckmann rejected the predominant thrust of modernism and instead looked backward, to artists such as Brueghel and Matthias Grünewald. Dix, too, admired Northern Renaissance painting, both for its smooth, licked surfaces and its expressive, sometimes tormented, realism. Dix and Grosz revived the largely discredited practice of history painting, injecting the genre with a venom that subverted its former celebratory function.
This trolling through old styles and genres was not a return to the past, but rather an acknowledgement that no one style could meet the demands of the present. Indeed, much Weimar-era art involves a pastiche of styles, often juxtaposed to dramatic effect. The childlike primitivism of Grosz’s caricatures underscores the scathing seriousness of their content. Dix painted horrific, hideous subjects with the refined delicacy of an Old Master. Both he and Grosz employed a kind of pseudocollage, in which some elements of a composition are limned with photographic precision, while others retain an abstract crudeness. Beckmann navigated a similar path between three-dimensional verisimilitude and the flatness of the picture plane, cramming his surfaces with realistic detail to block out the existential void beneath.
The socio-political upheavals of the early Weimar years called into question the very viability of art. Dada, an anti-art movement that originated in neutral Switzerland during World War I, came to Berlin in 1917 and culminated in the 1920 Dada Fair. Disdaining the bourgeois preciousness of traditional artworks (paintings in particular), Dadaists advocated techniques, like collage and photo-montage, that concealed the artist’s touch. They favored the ugly over the beautiful, the ephemeral over the permanent, the mass-produced over the unique. In keeping with this philosophy, Grosz developed an uninflected, linear style of caricature and worked with the publisher Wieland Herzfelde to disseminate provocative broadsheets and prints. Large editions and photo-lithography were used to circumvent the art trade and reach an ostensibly proletarian public.
Inflation further encouraged the publication of prints in the early 1920s, prompting people to invest in tangible objects and at the same time curbing the market for more expensive items like paintings. Prints and print portfolios enabled Grosz, Beckmann and Dix to deliver visual treatises on specific aspects of Weimar society. All three artists were attracted to popular entertainments such as circuses, cabarets and carnivals, both as alternatives to high culture and as metaphors for the farcical nature of contemporary life. Beckmann created a broad catalogue of human foibles in his 1921 drypoint cycle The Annual Fair. Grosz’s repeated attacks on the military culminated in the 1928 Background portfolio, a suite of reproductions based on stage designs for Erwin Piscator’s dramatization of the antiwar novel The Good Soldier Schwejk. One of the greatest bodies of work to come out of World War I was undoubtedly Dix’s War cycle: a series of fifty etchings published in 1924. Though not intended as an antiwar statement, the War series is all the more powerful for its lack of proselytizing. The prints simply record the enormity of the conflict as Dix himself experienced it.
The adversarial approach that some Weimar artists took toward the ruling establishment was not without risks. Grosz was almost constantly being hauled into court; first, at the time of the Dada Fair, for insulting the military; then for obscenity; and finally, in connection with the Background portfolio, for blasphemy. Dix walked a fine line between scandal and outright lawlessness. Only once did he find himself in legal trouble, for depicting an allegedly “obscene” prostitute with sagging breasts. Both Grosz and Dix came from relatively lower-class backgrounds, and they relished the stance of dandyprovocateur. Beckmann, however, maintained ongoing ties to the aristocracy and harbored a more elitist view of his artistic mission. Cultural renewal, he believed, could only come from above, through what he termed “aristocratic bolshevism.”
At the time of the Weimar revolution, many artists had allied themselves with the proletariat, but it turned out that the two groups were not especially compatible. Workers did not like or even understand avant-garde art, and before long the Communist Party was calling Grosz to task for the negativity of his imagery. Beyond this, the artistic passion in Grosz’s and Dix’s work—the complex interplay between fascination and revulsion—made it unsuitable for propaganda purposes. Artists could not easily subordinate their personal creative goals to those of a commanding authority. Nonetheless, the idea that the public needed guidance from a higher power—whether from the Communists or the defunct aristocracy—seemed unshakable, and doomed Germany’s attempt to establish a viable democracy.
In the mid-1920s, the Weimar Republic momentarily stabilized. Inflation had been brought under control, and the ravages of World War I were beginning to fade into memory. Beckmann was teaching at the Städel Art School in Frankfurt, Dix at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden. Even Grosz had settled down professionally and personally, having become disenchanted with Communism after a visit to the USSR. All three artists excelled at portraiture during this period, reflecting more conventional aspirations as well as the growth of an appreciative clientele for their work. Beckmann’s approach to the human condition became increasingly idiosyncratic, as he began to develop a personal symbolism that would remain with him for the rest of his life.
Of the three artists, only Grosz, because of his repeated legal imbroglios and Communist affiliation, was an immediate target for the Nazis. Already engaged as a teacher at the Art Students League in New York, he brought his family to America shortly before Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. For Dix and Beckmann, the years between 1933 and 1937 (when both were included in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition) were a time of ambiguous unease. On the one hand, they were each immediately removed from their teaching posts; on the other, they were still to some extent able to exhibit and sell their work. Beckmann and his wife fled to Amsterdam immediately after the opening of “Degenerate Art.” Dix remained behind, painting landscapes and Christian allegories that would not offend the Nazis.
Hitler’s notion of “degeneracy” had sweeping implications, eventually leading to the wholesale extermination of people he considered unfit to live. Beckmann, Dix and Grosz were judged “degenerate” because their work was not classically realistic, and because it highlighted the moral vacuity of contemporary Germany. These artists chronicled a society that had sent its young men to war and then left them, crippled or maimed, to beg in the streets. This was a society in which everything had become commoditized and where prostitution was the emblematic profession. Coming from different vantage points, Beckmann, Dix and Grosz warned that unrestrained capitalism would create dangerous disparities of wealth, rampant corruption and a toxic sense of injustice. There is good reason that their warnings still resonate with audiences today.