The Unflinching Realism of New Objectivity

Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity - Otto Dix - Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas, etching, 1924. Otto Dix - Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas, etching, 1924. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Emerging from the destruction of World War I, New Objectivity’s unsentimental artistic realism reflected contemporary society, as it blew away the romantic and utopian ideals of Expressionism in the pre-World War II years, with artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz unflinchingly exposing the horrors of the era in during one of the most tumultuous times in German history.

“I had the feeling that there was a dimension of reality that had not been dealt with in art: the dimension of ugliness.”

Otto Dix

Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity - Otto Dix – Der Krieg, Set of 50 Etchings.

Otto Dix – Der Krieg, Set of 50 Etchings. Sold for £236,750 via Christie’s (September 2017).

Disillusioned by war, a group of artists embodying Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity in English, mercilessly held a mirror up to life in Weimar society in highly naturalistic and caustically satirical paintings that reflected the political turmoil of life. Taking its name from an exhibition by curator Gustav Hartlaub in 1925, New Objectivity was sober in approach and favored depictions of close observation. Destruction and poverty was widespread, so a return to realism gradually emerged to express the harsh realities of post-war life.

Established a year after the formation of the Weimar Republic in Germany, 1919, New Objectivity came to fruition amid chaotic and turbulent times that led to a devastating depression and paved the way for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. This was a solemn time and the artists showed the social and political turmoil of life.

As a collective they “wanted to see things quite naked, clearly, almost without art,” according to Otto Dix, who along with Max Beckmann and George Grosz employed caricature, satire, Neoclassicism, and Surrealism to portray politicians, bohemians, and society to reflect the society they inhabited with unflinching honesty.

Harsh Realities

Tracing its roots to November 1918 when Expressionist painters Max Pechstein and César Klein formed the November Group, who portrayed life with realistic honesty, with the grand aim of establishing and supporting a socialist society. The diverse group of over 100 artists, including Paul Klee, Hannah Höch, Piet Mondrian, Grosz, and Dix, encouraged the development of a new type of realism, which came to be known as Neue Sachlichkeit.

Driven by a fiercely critical view of society and its failures, Neue Sachlichkeit had plenty to rebel against. Germany was in utter devastation after WWI. With two million dead and approximately a quarter of a million casualties from starvation or disease after the war ended, life in the Weimar Republic was characterized by tremendous hyperinflation and a worthless German Mark, coupled with social and political instability. Intended to reinvigorate and redefine the nation, economic stress and starvation dominated Weimar rule.

It wasn’t a time for optimism and the New Objectivity reflected this. In defiance of trends towards abstraction, Neue Sachlichkeit artists embraced realism. It was a distorted and dark realism in distorted and dark times that aimed to expose the moral degradation of German society.

Devoid of a shared stylistic approach, but sharing an objective view of life, sachlichkeit can be translated as ‘matter-of-factness,’ emphasizing the straightforward and unflinching depictions of the movement. This effort to paint the truth along with any unflattering details can be seen in Dix’s portrayal of injured soldiers in Kartenspieler (Cardplayers), 1920, while Beckmann represents emaciated figures in abject poverty in Die Holle: Der Hunger (Hell: Hunger), 1919, and Grosz shows ugly power, corruption and Nazi collusion in Die Besitzkroten (Toads of Property).

Capturing Society

By 1922, Otto Dix and George Grosz were among the foremost practitioners of hard-hitting realism that exposed the effects of war and corruption. Dix’s paintings and prints were dominated by anguished, exploited people, and the society they inhabited. “You have to see man in an unbridled state in order to know something about him,” he explained.

Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity - Max Beckmann - Selbstbildnis mit Horn (Self-Portrait with Horn).

Max Beckmann – Selbstbildnis mit Horn (Self-Portrait with Horn). Sold for $22,555,750 via Sotheby’s (May 2001).

A sought-after portraitist, much of Dix’s work was influenced by his four years as an artillery gunner on the frontline, for which he earned the Iron Cross. Channelling the senseless violence into visual expressions of despondency, Der Krieg (The War) unflinchingly brings to life the horrors of trench warfare. Veering on social satire, his grotesque and exaggerated figures are evident once again in the grossly distorted features of war-damaged bodies in Die Skatspieler (Skat Players).

George Grosz similarly served in the army, and similarly produced violently anti-war drawings that attacked the social corruption of Germany. Playing a prominent role in the Berlin Dada movement between 1917 and ’20, Grosz collaborated with John Heartfield and Raoul Hausmann to create the photomontage.

Using satirical drawings to attack bourgeois supporters of the Weimar Republic, Grosz’s Gott mit Uns (God with Us) takes aim at the stupidity and brutality of the German military in nine caustic illustrations, including Made in Germany, a less than favourable depiction of a German army officer. His Fit for Active Service remains a seminal part of New Objectivity with its skewering of the draft system. His rebellion led to prosecution for insulting the army and blasphemy.

Further horrors were on the horizon for Germans, as Max Beckmann would come to realise. Labelled a ‘cultural Bolshevik’ by the Nazi government in 1933, Beckmann’s work was displayed in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. Expressing the agonies of Europe in the first half of the 20th century in paintings like the terrifying The Night (1918-19), Beckmann’s art included mythologized references to Nazi brutality. Painted in exile in Amsterdam, Self-Portrait with Horn (1938) was filled with symbolism. The horn represented a telescope that reflected the darkness surrounding him, while a sense of entrapment is exaggerated by the tight framing. “My pictures are a reproach to God for all that he does wrong,” he said.

Holding a Mirror to Life

Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity - Max Beckmann – Die Nacht.

Max Beckmann – Die Nacht. Sold for €43,750 via Grisebach (May 2014).

The Nazi rise to power in 1933 brought an end to Neue Sachlichkeit when Reich Minister of Interior, Wilhelm Frick, demanded that the “completely un-German constructs carrying on under the name of New Objectivity must come to an end.” Banished from existence as degenerate art, some of the movement’s artists, like Max Beckman and George Grosz, fled the country, while others adjusted to a new oppression.

Initially regarded by some art historians as retrograde, a generation passed before a new appreciation for New Objectivity emerged in the 1960s. Photorealism and Critical Realism both found inspiration in New Objectivity, as the movement experienced a revival in Germany and influenced artists like Sigmar Polke, as well as contemporary realistic photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, who founded the Düsseldorf School and taught Andreas Gursky.

Pushed and pulled between the oppression of two world wars, New Objectivity’s embrace of distorted and dark realism in distorted and dark times shows the horrors of war on people and society in brave acts of rebellion that would influence a new wave of realist photographers. In its search for an objective truth, New Objectivity held a mirror to society, which today stands as an important document of both contemporary culture and history.

Sources: – Neue Sachlichkeit | MoMA – New Objectivity | – Weimar Republic | – Neue Sachlichkeit | MoMA – Otto Dix | – George Grosz | – George Grosz