The New Objectivity

As I read through John Willett’s collection of imagery – photos, posters, plays, book design – from the Weimar Republic, The Weimar Years, I began to realise that I was confused about the precise meaning of the much-used phrase Neue Sachlichkeit, as it applies to the art of the period.

Key facts about Neue Sachlichkeit

1. The term Neue Sachlichkeit was first used by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub as the title of an exhibition of art works he organised in Mannheim in 1925, which featured artists including Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz.

2. As to translating this phrase into English, the neue bit is easy, it just means ‘new’. Sachlichkeit is generally translated (by Wikipedia and Tate) as ‘objectivity’, although John Willett also translates it as ‘sobriety’ (hence the title of his book on the subject, The New Sobriety) or as ‘matter-of-factness’.

3. Gustav Hartlaub in his introduction to the 1925 exhibition, and then successive critics and journalists following him, used the phrase to describe the widespread rejection of Expressionism which characterised all the arts in the early 1920s. Pre-war Expressionism had stood for grand, utopian, mystical, world-shaking visions and had represented the artist as a seer and prophet. Neue Sachlichkeit rejected artistic pretension and utopian visions, calling for the artist to become socially committed and paint the world of hard facts as they actually appear in front of him.

The puzzle

So far so easy. What puzzled me, as I read Willett’s book, is how the following two paintings can be said to be part of the same visual movement.

The Eclipse of the Sun by George Grosz (1926)

The eclipse of the sun seems to me a bizarre and grotesque painting – headless dummies, prisoners in dungeons (at bottom right), the sun blotted out by a silver dollar, all done with a deliberately vertiginous perspective and lack of continuity between different planes

Compare and contrast with the cool realism of this portrait of the artist’s friend, done by the same artist, George Grosz, in the same year.

Portrait of Dr Felix J. Weil by George Grosz (1926)

Portrait of Dr Felix J. Weil by George Grosz (1926)

How can they be part of the same movement?

It turns out that New Objectivity in art can be broken down into at least three, and maybe four, distinct streams (the following is based on the Wikipedia article, cross-checked against Willett’s two books).

Types of New Objectivity in art

In his introduction to the 1925 New Objectivity exhibition, Hartlaub distinguished between a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ wing of new art.

On the left were the Verists, who ‘tear the objective form of the world of contemporary facts and represent current experience in its tempo and fevered temperature’. The Verists’ aggressive brand of realism emphasized the ugly and sordid. Their art was raw, provocative, and harshly satirical. So George Grosz and Otto Dix in their harshest moments are Verists.

As Wikipedia explains, the Verists developed Dada’s abandonment of any pictorial rules or artistic language into a ‘satirical hyperrealism’. Yes, I agree: this perfectly describes Grosz’s harshest paintings and the photo-montages he made with the bleak satirist John Heartfield.

Collage as a technique blends the subjective and the objective (e.g. objective newspaper or magazine text or photos stuck onto bizarrely subjective assemblages).

This sense of multiple realities, or that the work can go beyond reality to depict the madness behind it, certainly underpins a lot of Grosz, whose drawings and Verist paintings depict human beings as grotesque puppets or cartoons.

This classic Grosz painting, The Pillars of Society, is a good example. Note the deliberate abandonment of perspective, the collage-like inclusion of ‘objective’ elements like the newspapers and flag, and the obviously caricature approach to the human face.

The pillars of society by George Grosz (1926)

The Pillars of Society by George Grosz (1926)

So much for the Verists. Hartlaub then distinguished the Verists from artists on the right who, he called ‘Classicists’ – artists who ‘search more for the object of timeless ability to embody the external laws of existence in the artistic sphere.’

Compared to the Verists, the Classicists more clearly exemplify the ‘return to order’ that swept the arts throughout Europe soon after the war. Apparently, the Classicists included Georg Schrimpf, Alexander Kanoldt, Carlo Mense, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, and Wilhelm Heise – none of whom I’d heard of.

But I can see how their look was inspired partly by traditional 19th-century art, but more by the so-called Italian ‘metaphysical painters’ (Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà) and, maybe, by the naive painter Henri Rousseau.

De Chirico is the man who painted umpteen paintings of cool, empty, rather sinister piazzas and featureless geometric architecture, just before the Great War, and who Breton tried to appropriate as a precursor of the Surrealists.

Piazza d'Italia by Giorgio de Chirico (1913)

Piazza d’Italia by Giorgio de Chirico (1913)

You can immediately see how calm, cool and detached de Chirico painting is, and why critics, starting with Hartlaub, have seen his influence in the super-detachment of the Neue Sachlichkeit artists who he called ‘the Classicists’. De Chirico’s images are simple and uncluttered, and the picture surface is smoothly finished. There is absolutely nothing like the collage mentality to be seen, no extraneous elements cut and pasted in at wacky angles, no grotesque figures.

Compare the cool feel of de Chirico with an early work by Anton Raederscheidt.

House No.9 by Anton Raederscheidt (1921)

House No.9 by Anton Raederscheidt (1921)

The style is cool and factual when compared with Grosz’s hyper-ventilating, collage hysteria. Sometimes, in the hands of other Classicist artists, this approach can be stylised, becoming a little cartoony – but it always remains calm and sensible, as in this attractive work by Georg Scholz.

Self-Portrait in front of an Advertising Column by Georg Scholz (1926)

Self-Portrait in front of an Advertising Column by Georg Scholz (1926)

Note the urban setting and the urban banality of the subject matter. The torn adverts on the pillar and a car showroom are miles away from the symbolic landscapes of the pre-war Expressionists, and the artist has deliberately portrayed himself as a banal bourgeois dressed in suit and tied and glasses and bowler hat. The strategy of depicting the modern world as it is, and fostering an image of utter conformity, reminds me of the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot with his bowler hat and respectable job in a bank.

There are lots of examples of these stylised and smoothly finished portraits in Willett’s book. Their smooth oil finish is completely at odds with the deliberately rough finish of many Expressionist works and with the crazy cutout collages Grosz and Heartfield were making during the late 1910s and early 1920s. Here’s a more obviously stylised example: note the de Chirico tenements in the background.

Self portrait by George Schrimpf (1919)

Self portrait by George Schrimpf (1919)

More often than not these ‘classical’ works are located in real world situations, featuring ordinary streets, cars and houses. Maybe they’re done in a simplified and stylised way but these works all accept the modern world, they aren’t pining for romantic landscapes.

And the ones Willett likes most depict practical men, business men, builders and designers, facing the world as it is and coming up with hard-headed, practical solutions.

Portrait of an architect by Wilhelm Schnarrenberger (1923)

Portrait of an architect by Wilhelm Schnarrenberger (1923)

Magic realism

But Verists and Classicists aren’t alone. There is a third category of Neue Sachlichkeit, which can be gathered under the term introduced at the time of the 1925 exhibition by co-organiser Franz Roh.

Roh called it ‘Magic Realism’, by which he meant not that it’s about magic and unicorns – the opposite: it declares that ‘the autonomy of the objective world around us was once more to be enjoyed; the wonder of matter that could crystallize into objects was to be seen anew.’ In other words, there’s something magical about just being, about the real world, when we really look at it. The real is magical.

Roh originally intended it as a descriptive term to cover all the artists of the time, but in practice it ended up being applied mostly to works of what you could describe as the dreamy end of Neue Sachlichkeit. Willett gives examples by Georg Schrimpf, Alexander Kanoldt and Carlo Mense. Many of these artists were from south Germany.

Girl with sheep by Georg Schrimpf (1923)

Girl with Sheep by Georg Schrimpf (1923)

As you might expect, the left-wing Willett doesn’t like this style, seeing it as a ‘compromise’ with the tough-minded, politically committed art which he prefers. Looking at this example, ‘compromise’ hardly seems the word: complete abandonment, or indifference to all politics, seems more accurate.

Willett claims that, because of its southern German provenance and its association with the Italian painters de Chirico and Carrà, Magical Realist art was ‘based on the new establishment art of Fascist Italy’ (p.81). For example, Willett calls Mense’s softer work ‘a sad concession to the new Italian art’ (p.127).

Portrait of a girl by Carlo Mense (1924)

Portrait of a girl by Carlo Mense (1924)

Well, maybe… Looks like a bland harmless portrait of a young woman to me.

Both the examples Willett gives are set in landscapes, and landscapes feature heavily in Magic Realism art (unlike the unrelentingly urban scenarios of Dix and Griosz). I’d like to share but can’t find on the internet the Mense painting which Willett includes in order to criticise – an idealised naked lady lying in a naive-style landscape.

Summary

So there you have it – the Neue Sachlichkeit in German art of the 1920s can be divided into three distinct strands:

  • Verism – the grotesque satires of Grosz and Dix
  • Classicism – cool, detached, highly finished works, often portraits, in a definite urban setting
  • Magic realism – dream-like, naive paintings, mostly of young women, often in idealised landscapes

Practical applications

Easy in theory, it’s not necessarily that simple to apply these distinctions in practice. For example, which of these three categories does this work by Grosz fall in? It’s not Dada-hysterical Verism, is it? Probably more ‘classical’, though a bit muscular and aggressive for that cool approach…

Max Schmeling the Boxer by George Grosz (1926)

To my surprise the Wikipedia article classifies Christian Schad as a Verist. I’d have thought his clinical precision and slick detachment make him a Classicist. Wouldn’t you say so, from the smooth soulful face of the central figure here? Is it the distorted faces of the women, the depictions of the women’s breasts and bottom, and the distortion of the woman on the right’s face which make this Verist?

Count St. Genois d'Anneaucourt by Christian Schad (1927)

Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt by Christian Schad (1927)

And what, then, of this amazingly ‘classical’ painting by Schad of a medical operation? Surely it has next to nothing in common by any work by Grosz or Dix? With a poster of Stalin on the wall it could be a piece of 1930s Socialist Realism. How can both hysterical Grosz and lancet-precise Schad be ‘Verists’?

The Operation by Christian Schad (1929)

The Operation by Christian Schad (1929)

Provisional conclusions

From this little investigation I conclude that:

1. Neue Sachlichkeit painting is more complex than it appears. There are at least three strands of Neue Sachlichkeit – Verism, Classicism and Magical Realism – but Verism very much looks to me like it can be further sub-divided into satirical Verism (Grosz, Dix) and cool detached Verism (Schad).

2. Maybe a more pragmatic way of looking at it is to acknowledge that, within an over-arching return not only to figuratism and forms of realism, but to the idea of a painting as just a painting (unlike the multi-levelled ‘object’ pioneered by the cubists or the three-dimensional provocation engineered by Dada) which deserves to be brought to a high level of completion or ‘finish’ – within this great generational shift, there were in fact a variety of strands and strategies – some setting out to be deliberately grotesque and satirical, others to be cool and detached, some to paint eerily empty streets, others to depict the streets as crazy confusions of chaotic crowds, some to paint humans as crack-faced cyborgs, others to give the human face a calm and only slightly stylised appearance (Scholz and Schad), and others again drifting off altogether into faux naif landscapes littered with dreamy, cartoon ladies (Schrimpf and Mense) – and that artists of the period could move easily from one style to another.

I.e. within Neue Sachlichkeit, certain nameable strands are readily identifiable, but hundreds of artists working in the same Zeitgeist produced a varying profusion of results which often elude definition at all.

For example, from all the painters mentioned above, on the evidence of style alone, who do you think painted this picture?

Woman in a black dress (1926)

Woman in a black dress (1926)


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