The dead of two world wars bracket the existence of the Weimar Republic. Between the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933, liberal society flowered in Germany – albeit under punitive austerity, rampant inflation and fantastic wealth. Artists worked at extremes, cataloguing the era in brutally realistic idioms, both idealistically clean or pessimistically twisted – called ‘New Naturalism’ or ‘Magic Realism’ before being lumped together by curator Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub in 1923 as Neue Sachlichkeit. ‘New Matter-of-Factness’ is a literal translation; yet ‘New Objectivity’ most clearly foregrounds, across both Communist and proto-Fascist variants of interwar realism, its socio-historical focus over the psychological morass of the individual. Or else, as the Marxist critic Béla Balázs put it, the industrial era left us with more empathy for objects than for ourselves. The present survey of nearly 200 paintings, films, and works on paper, curated by Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – the first in the United States to treat Neue Sachlichkeit in such detail – is both precise and dire; and, like its subject, both entrance and exit are lined with bodies.
Beside Ernst Friedrich’s book Krieg dem Kriege! (War against War!, 1924/1981), open to photos of soldiers with facial trauma, selected etchings from Otto Dix’s equally shocking Der Krieg cycle (1924) introduce the show. Paintings by Dix, George Grosz, Jeanne Mammen and Heinrich Maria Davringhausen provide the requisite scenes of distorted profiteers and ugly prostitutes. Yet these horrors are quickly outdone by lesser-known themes that complicate our own Weimar gaze. Several Lustmord or ‘sex murder’ paintings attest to the anxieties of ‘emasculated’, defeated men toward newly independent women. Such depraved fantasies of control, accomplished not by gunshots but gashes, were exploited and sensationalized in the rightwing press. Heinrich Maria Davringhausen’s 1919 The Dreamer is an especially surreal example: a grey-faced figure sits at a table, staring out; a bloody straight razor lays by his hand, while in the corner is a woman with her throat cut; above, the ceiling phases into a beach. Opposite such stylized grotesqueries, the portraits in the final gallery are far cleaner – though no less alienated. Highlights include Dix’s portrait Little Girl (1922), whose prepubescent body is filigreed with veins; and the psychosexual self-portrait of Christian Schad in bed with a woman in stark profile, where the tie on his gauzy nightshirt mimics the stitches on her cheek. Emblematic of the paradox of Sachlichkeit is a circa 1928–30 self-portrait by Herbert Ploberger, who poses with two opthalmological models of human eyes – a graphic, anatomical precision that is, again, part technical progress and part wound.
One vitrine includes period examples of art magazines, such as Paul Westheim’s moderate Das Kunstblatt, which as early as 1919 noted an emergent ‘New Naturalism’, as well as Der Querschnitt, Der Cicerone and Kunst und Künstler – all of which reviewed the Neue Sachlichkeit. For the non-German speaker these publications nonetheless suggest how post-expressionist discourses had agendas as varied as those of its artists. The political left, represented in Communist papers like Die Rote Fahne (though not on display), at first supported these quasi-documentary satires of social ills, yet by the late 1920s had largely rejected Neue Sachlichkeit as manneristically bourgeois. A room of portraits includes a number of gay, lesbian, and ‘physique’ periodicals, among scenes of intimate life ranging from Dix’s unforgivingly corpulent The Pregnant Woman (1931) to Schad’s Boys in Love (1929), a ghostly silverpoint drawing of two boys kissing. An adjacent gallery displays portraits of ‘Weimar Types’. These include, for example, paintings by Dix and Grosz of a lawyer and a man with a glass eye, which face five small, dense typologies by photographer August Sander. In Sander’s Bricklayer (1928) a young man’s heavy load nimbuses his defiant face; an ominous shadow (perhaps the photographer’s) falls across his chest. It’s easy to forget that even Sander’s straightforward taxonomy was soon censored by the Nazis, for whom dignified portraits of Jews, labourers and disabled veterans were ‘degenerate’: the plates for Sander’s 1929 book, Face of our Time, were destroyed in 1936. Few of the Neue Sachlichkeit artists fared well under the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and many found infamy in Hitler’s 1937 exhibition of Entartete Kunst. Meanwhile, Bernhard Dörries, represented here by an austere, almost Dutch still life of a breakfast setting, was ‘honored’ in the antidote, the Great German Art Exhibition, underscoring how these ‘new’ depictions were not simply blunt or combative or neutral, but potentially mercenary entries in a democratic experiment – both descriptive and prescriptive.
Hartlaub’s 1925 exhibition at Kunstverein Mannheim distinguished between ‘classicist’ and ‘verist’ approaches to Neue Sachlichkeit. If the classicists strived for ideal proportion and beauty, a wilful aesthetic retrenchment after the churned no-mans-lands of the Great War, the verists favoured unflinching depictions of hard truths. The LACMA exhibition, arranged thematically, departs from this dichotomy. A section on ‘Schrimpf and Classicism’ focuses on detached pastorals and untroubled city scenes – the neat crops and rolling hills behind Schrimpf’s healthful Reclining Girls in the Countryside (1930) or the kempt, geometric town sketched in Leonhard Schmidt’s Weissenhof (1932) – that would ignore the grim realities of the German interregnum. Yet the fact that Schrimpf was a Communist highlights the ambiguity of even a ‘right-wing objectivity’. Crisp, deftly coloured paintings of factory interiors by Carl Grossberg – his stunning The Paper Machine (1934), for one – feel both triumphant and soulless; many were commissioned by manufacturers. In photos by Werner Mantz, a new apartment block resolves into patterned shadows and windows on a concrete facade, while in Franz Lenk’s painting Berlin Tenements (1929) the carefully bricked side of a building bears the pinkish ghost of its demolished neighbour. With hindsight, it’s difficult to see Hans Finsler’s formal photographic study of a propeller (1931), or the dazzling, variegated rivets of the ocean liners in Franz Radziwill’s The Harbor II (1930) without imagining highseas hunts between U-boats and Allied troop ships – whether we know that Radziwill became a Nazi.
Though Neue Sachlichkeit is famous for its monstrous industrialists and maimed soldiers, still lifes form the LACMA show’s loaded center. Albert Renger-Patzsch’s ranks of Flat Irons for Shoe Manufacture, Fagus Factory I (1926), or Aenne Biermann’s studies of eggs evince a hard-edged wonder at the surfeit of new consumer goods that today seems almost exotic. Yet the exhibition’s eeriest inclusions are a handful of paintings of cacti. To a Los Angeles audience, at least, these works look oddly contemporary; while to the Weimar artist, these slow, tough plants crossed between machines and bodies – their firm lobes, lacy ridges, and indifferent spines evoking scars, genitals, boils, and muscles – and a natural order. In Georg Scholz’s Cacti and Semaphore (1923), three distant signal flags at a hedge appear through a window framed by succulents. Two glittering lightbulbs lie on the table. Braced by the worst humanity has yet to offer, such a scene is poignant – as if through painting the artist might clutch some reasonable code in all this cold progress. Here, in arrangements not unlike those on our modern sills, we sense the fragile truce that makes possible our own wild and cruel experiment in free society.
First published in Issue 23