The New Objectivity movement (or Neue Sachlichkeit in German) sought to portray a raw, unfiltered reality amidst the social chaos of the era. Artists rejected idealism, focusing instead on precise, often stark depictions of modern society. Themes ranged from urbanization and technology to the Great War’s aftermath and social inequality. The movement dissolved with the rise of Nazism and left behind a vibrant legacy of socially critical art.
What is The New Objectivity?
The New Objectivity was a movement that flourished in Weimar Germany after the First World War. Germany suffered greatly both during the war and after. Rapid inflation led to extreme poverty and hunger. Many men were wounded, both physically and psychologically, and many women turned to sex work in order to make ends meet. After a period of destitution, the country experienced an economic upturn (also known as the Roaring Twenties), which resulted in a society that some people viewed as decadent and immoral. Much of the art of the New Objectivity was very critical of the war, and of the society which emerged from it.
Before the war, Expressionism had been the dominant movement in Germany—a movement that valued emotional expression, subjective experience, gestural brush strokes, and suggestive use of color. Immediately after the war, the Dada movement blossomed. In Dada, the fragmented minds and bodies of soldiers were expressed through the fragmented surfaces of collages and photomontages. The New Objectivity rejected the subjectivity of Expressionism and embraced the social commentary of Dada. This new movement was formed around a set of shared tendencies, rather than a specific visual style.
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Artists of this movement were attempting to say something about German society and its people, from a detached and objective perspective. They wanted to show Germany as it really was, in all of its decadent highs, and terrible lows. The movement has been said to be roughly divided between two styles: the verists, whose work was focused on biting satire, and the classicists, whose work was perhaps more concerned with beauty. What ties the art of The New Objectivity together is a commitment to portraying German society, a detached perspective, a sense of cynicism, and an embrace of caricature and satire. Here are 6 key artists from the New Objectivity movement in Germany that you should know.
1. Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann was born February 12, 1884, in Leipzig, Germany as the youngest child in an upper-middle-class family. He studied art at the Weimar Academy. During his early career, he developed an Expressionist style. When World War I broke out, Beckmann joined the medical corps with enthusiasm and excitement. However, he soon suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to civilian life in 1915. His traumatic experiences during the war would have a huge impact on his work for years to come.
In Beckmann’s work, we can see a commitment to capturing the evil and corruption he saw during the war and in the following years. His work The Night is a damning indictment of violence and its style in many ways bridges the gap between Expressionism and New Objectivity. It is an emotionally charged painting, which highlights the suffering of innocent people at the hands of authority. The left-hand side of the painting is dominated by a man whose neck is bound and whose face is contorted in pain. To the right, a woman lies, arms raised, legs spread, her clothing torn open suggesting she has been abused.
The shallow background is scattered with more figures whose faces are caught in pain and terror. A large figure with his hat pulled down over his eyes pulls the window blind down with one hand, while the other clutches roughly to a small child. The crowded composition communicates the chaos of the scene. For Beckmann, it was important to represent in some way the human suffering he had witnessed during the war.
2. George Grosz
George Grosz was born in Berlin in 1893 to a devout Lutheran family. He studied at the Dresden Academy for Fine Arts from 1909 to 1911. He served in the army from 1914 to 1915, and again briefly in 1917. Grosz was hugely discouraged by what he saw as an inherent enthusiasm for violence in humans and adopted a cynical gaze after the war. His works provided biting commentary on the social corruption he saw in Berlin, focusing particularly on the middle class, the capitalists, the sex workers, and the Prussian military caste.
In Street Scene, Grosz depicts a busy Berlin street, where all walks of life mingle on the pavements. The painting is executed in drab colors, dominated by grays and browns, with little light. In the foreground we see a well-off middle-class businessman, who stares blankly ahead through eyes that are barely open, ignoring the begging war veteran beside him. The veteran himself walks using crutches and stares at the world through one milky eye. In the background, we see a fashionable middle-class woman, and a huge, lumbering businessman. Nobody seems to pay any attention to anyone else, they simply go about their day in gray silence. Grosz’s impression of life in Weimar Berlin is one of isolation and moral decay.
3. August Sander
August Sander was born in 1876, in Herdof, Germany. He had six siblings and his father was a carpenter who worked in the mining industry. Sander discovered photography at a young age when he was helping the company photographer carry equipment into the mines. He undertook military service from 1897 to 1899 as a war photographer’s assistant. In 1909 he set up his own photography studio in Cologne.
His most famous works are his People of the 20th Century series, which he began in the mid-1920s. For this series, Sander aimed to photograph all the different types of people who made up German society. The series was divided into categories such as Classes and Professions, The Farmer, The Woman, The Skilled Tradesman, The City, The Artists, and The Last People.
His aim was to capture German society in all its multifaceted nature, using the objective eye of the camera to do so. His portraits follow a certain formula, they are often shot against neutral backgrounds, ensuring that the focus remains on the subject. The compositions are generally face-on and include the full body of the subject. The portraits remain anonymous and aren’t titled using the person’s name. Sander did not adopt new photographic technologies, preferring instead to use an old, large-format camera and long exposure times, which allowed him to capture the most minute details of a person’s form.
In Country Girls the subject’s appearance mirrors each other, which underlines the idea of them as a type. Sanders’ project presents these girls as being typical of all German country girls. It was important to Sanders that his subjects felt comfortable and relaxed in front of the camera so that they could be themselves. Sanders continued making People of the 20th Century until the 1960s and his work had a huge influence on photography. This can be seen in the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Rineke Dijkstra.
4. Jeanne Mammen
Jeanne Mammen was born in Berlin in 1890, but she and her family soon moved to Paris, when she was five years old. Between 1906 and 1911, she studied painting in Paris, Rome, and Brussels. In 1916, during the war, she and her family fled Paris. Her parents went to Amsterdam, but Mammen decided to return to Berlin. She lived a difficult life for several years, as she struggled to make ends meet on her own, but things settled down when she rented a small apartment with her sister and started getting regular work as an illustrator for fashion magazines and film posters.
She Represents was originally published as part of Curt Moreck’s Guide to Immoral Berlin in 1931. This pocketbook was a guide to many underground activities available in Berlin. She Represents was printed alongside a guide for lesbian locales. Mammen’s work foregrounded lesbian identity, an aspect of German society that had for a long time been shunned or hidden. While her work lacks the biting satire that we find in many works of other painters of the movement, it is with a cool, objective style, that she cast the light on the reality of German life.
Most of Mammen’s art focuses on women. The phenomenon of the new woman can be seen in much of the art of the New Objectivity, but it is perhaps in Mammen’s work that the motif is most gently handled. The new woman refers to the newly liberated social standing of women in post-war Germany. Women were participating in public life to a degree that was unprecedented. The style and appearance of women changed to match this newfound freedom. Androgynous clothing and short bobbed haircuts were common. To some people, this new woman was a symbol of progression and freedom. To others, it was a sign of dangerous transgression. For Mammen, the new woman was simply a fact, a reality that needed to be recorded.
5. Christian Schad
Christian Schad was born in 1894 in Miesbach in Upper Bavaria. His father was a wealthy lawyer who supported Schad for much of his life. In 1913 he attended the art academy in Munich. He did not participate in the war, since he obtained a medical report which exempted him from service. He moved to Zurich in 1915, where he stayed until 1920. After the war he moved around Europe, between Italy, Paris, Vienna, and Germany, eventually settling in Berlin in the late 1920s.
In this portrait, Schad painted St-Genois d’Anneaucourt, an actor famous in Viennese high society, alongside his companions Baroness Glaser, and a well-known cross-dresser from the Eldorado cabaret in Berlin. In this piece, we can see an exploration of the rapid shifts in gender and sexuality norms that took place in Weimar Germany. People like the famous physician Magnus Hirschfield actively researched sex and sexuality and campaigned for gay rights. His research supported the existence of transsexuality and advocated for these individuals.
6. Otto Dix
Otto Dix was born in 1891 in Thuringia, Germany. He was the eldest son of an ironworker. He apprenticed in the decorative arts and then trained at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. At the outbreak of the war, Dix volunteered with enthusiasm. He went on to spend four years on the front line as an artillery gunman.
His experiences on the battlefield traumatized him greatly and would stay with him for life. He made numerous sketches of the horrors he saw at the front line. Once he returned he resumed his studies in fine art. After the war, his work became focused on conveying the depravity of war and of society in Weimar Germany. In Dix’s work figures are portrayed as ugly caricatures and horrible satirical visions of contemporary culture.
Metropolis is a triptych showing three scenes of Berlin nightlife. The central panel is the typical, decadent Berlin party filled with jazz, dancing, and modern women in lavish outfits. The panels on the sides, however, tell a very different story. On the left we see a war cripple who has lost both legs, pulling himself along on crutches. On the ground beneath him, a body lies sprawled on the cobblestones. Before the cripple a line of sex workers stretches into the background, enticing him to join them.
On the right panel, a similar scene unfolds. There’s a legless veteran sitting on the ground, begging, with his head in his hands. A line of sex workers walks past him, ignoring the man’s suffering. The figures in these paintings are depicted with exaggerated features that make them appear grotesque and awful. Each person, except the veterans, is supposed to represent a caricature of moral decay.
The End of The New Objectivity
The rise of Nazism had a huge impact on the cultural landscape of Germany, from the early 1930s on. The Nazis disapproved of many modern art forms, including the works associated with New Objectivity. They promoted art that adhered to their own ideological principles, leading to censorship, suppression, and the persecution of artists. Some of the works of the New Objectivity were included in the Degenerate Art shows, and some artists simply stopped making art, as a creative protest against the regime.