The Weimar Republic is often considered one of the most remarkably energetic periods in the artistic history of humanity, a roaring surge of modernism in all fields of arts, where experimentation was the norm. For a glorious – if all too short – period over the ‘Golden 1920s’ and the first part of the 1930s, while Germany went through one of the most troubling political and economic times in her history, Berlin was one of the most exciting places in Europe where an artist could be. Possibly in the world.
The Weimar constitution guaranteed to everyone the right to “express his opinion freely in words, writing, print, pictures and in any other manner,” and artists, both Germans and foreign, took this opportunity to its fullest. No aspect of the liberal life of the republic was left out. Arts often depicted the liberation of women, the free expression of homosexuals as well as the realities of post-war that people would have probably prefer not to see.
One of the centres of this new concept of arts was the Bauhaus in Weimar, an ensemble of artists, but also an educational institution, which offered tuition in many modern arts and encouraged the use of new materials and new industrial processes. It was also a kind of utopian social commune, and experiment just like the republic itself was.
Art was often a political assertion in the Weimar republic. This is why the reaction to arts was likewise political. The right-wing parties and völkiesh sensibilities saw this freedom of expression as a true subversion. Art didn’t shy away from any forms of corruption, both personal and political, of sexual display and of mutilation. It depicted and scrutinised the uncomfortable realities of post-war life. It was accused to try and destroy everything that still was genuinely and traditionally German. Acting like a deforming mirror, modernistic art of all forms was considered to not a depiction of reality, but an apology of everything decadent or corrupted.
Since in the eye of the Right everything subversive was automatically Bolshevik, this artistic attitude was dabbed Kulturbolschewismus (cultural bolshevism). It would have been called ‘degenerated art’ only a few years later.
In November 1918, Expressionist painters Max Pechstein and César Klein formed an artistic group whose purpose was to go beyond Expressionism. The November Group “were confident that merely by rejecting the sentimentality of prewar German Expressionism, and substituting a more realistic, sober view of the life around them, they could not only bring about a new society but usher in a ‘new man.'”
This was the beginning of what was known afterwards as Neue Sachlichkeit, which is often translated into New Objectivity but could also be understood as New Realism.
The artist who joined this movement didn’t share a style, but rather an ideal, and most of them had been in the war. Otto Dix had been a machine-gunner during WWI and George Grosz had fought in the trenches too. These artists saw with great clarity the consequences of the war, which were never good in their eyes. If the republic had brought freedom – which was what allowed them to express their opinion – it had also brought corruption, illness, deformation, both physical and intellectual. They sought to express this not by turning inside themselves and their own experience, but by depicting it as it truly was and everyone could see. The subjects of their art were the maimed veterans, the disfigured bodies and faces, the underworld with its prostitutes and gangsters, the corruption of politicians and rich industrialists.
Their realism became sometimes so extreme that it almost turned grotesque and slid into surrealism, which gave one more key of interpretation to the reality they knew.
The work of these artists was considered by the Right ‘degenerated art’ without exception.
The Guardian – The first world war in German art: Otto Dix’s first-hand visions of horror
Artsy – New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933
The Art Story – Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)
Art History Unstuffed – Art of the Weimar Republic: The German People as Subjects, Part One
The New York Times – A new exhibit highlights cultural decadence of Weimar Germany – Culture – International Herald Tribune
British Library – Culture in Weimar Germany: on the edge of the volcano
Walter Laqueur, Weimar, A Cultural History 1918-1933. Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd. London, 1971
Yes, I was always attracted to this art even if I wouldn’t hang it in my home because it is disturbing…brilliantly so. I did not know that Dix decided to stay in his country during the Hitler regime….very brave man. It is so very sad that so much art was destroyed…it is disgusting. I think, to this day, people don’t want to hear the severe trauma that the soldiers and civilians have to deal with.
Something I didn’t include in the article is that many veterans felt that what they had experience was impossible to communicate. Artists still tried to do it through the impact of arts, but many other people just kept it inside themselves.
I read in anarticle about Otto Dix (one of the links above) that Dix created this art for years so to get the war out of his system.
“Their realism became sometimes so extreme that it almost turned grotesque and slid into surrealism…” Yes, I think that it did turn grotesque. The paintings are more than a mirror of reality, they are surreal.
In his book about the interwar years, Enzo Traverso stresses many times the idea that the experience of war was noncommunicable and the war had created an incurable caesura in the hearts and minds of the nations involved. The languiage that they knew was therefore useless in trying to communicate that experience to the world afterward.
I think all the forms of avant-garde that florished after WWI were trying to find the language that would express the experience of WWI in a way or another.
So, the reality they were striving to communicate was itself surreal!
I agree with Birgit, Otto Dix’s work is powerfully disturbing. It was in a gallery alongside an exhibition I attended and – initially – I walked out. I couldn’t handle it. But once I got past that and looked at the quality of his work and the underlying message, I could only say good things. But, no, never on the walls of anywhere I’d live or work please.
A-Zing this year at:
Normally found at:
I agree. German works of art of the interwar years are often very distrubing. And not surprisingly. Not only had Germans expereince the war – just like all the other nations involved – but afterward they had to cope with the accusation to have caused the war, and basically to be the villains of Europe.
Can’t say it was an easy position.
I love the various schools of modern art. The paintings make me think, challenge old ideas, and sometimes unsettle me in a good way, in spite of how naysayers insist all art after 1900 is garbage and that a four-year-old could easily make modern art.
I think the problem with 1900s art is that very often it is conceptual. There aren’t recognizable human forms, often everything is reinterpretated and so in a way is less immedaite than how classic art is percaived to be.
My feeling is that modern art requires a preparation more than classic art did. But then, this is probably because we need a preparation to recognise what it is depicted even before we try any interpretation.
Of course it’s degenerated art! That’s what makes it fun!
This is so absolutely fascinating! There is definitely something about the art, literature, drama and music of this era. It is disturbing and unsettling. It’s a bit like a funhouse mirror, if that makes any sense.
It makes complete sense to me. Art deforms reality so to encourage the viewer to look at that reality in a different way and note things that usually are overlooked.
Hi Sarah – this is such an interesting post … I’ll be back to read properly – and have temporarily ordered Traverso’s book … may well get … so much to learn and appreciate – cheers Hilary
That’s great, Hilary. I really enjoyed Traverso’s book. One of the best abotu the interwar years I’ve read so far.