Art never comes out of the trenches unscathed. With the end of the First World War, German painting moved away from the excesses of Expressionism towards a cooler, more distant and austere style that sought to reflect the social reality after the end of the war. The movement, christened “New Objectivity” in an exhibition that opened in Mannheim in 1925, opted for a stoic figuration bordering on the meaningless, a possible reflection of the culture of shame that arose in Germany after its defeat. The art was full of portraits of empty-eyed, resigned characters lost amidst the absurd and twisted landscape created by the war.
A multidisciplinary exhibition at the Center Pompidou in Paris now revisits, through an endless selection of 900 works and documents, the official history of the 1920s in Germany, almost always subject to the golden legend of the Weimar Republic, which the Parisian museum is now demystifying with a Mixture of caution and courage. The exhibition’s most daring thesis, which can be seen until September 5, is that there was no clear break between the 1920s and 1930s. “These two periods are often opposed as it has been a smoother transition than anticipated. There was no dry cut,” confirms curator Angela Lampe. In another daring gesture, the commissioner decided to paint the final wall of the route a dirty brown reminiscent of the first Nazi uniform. In this way, it evokes the fateful ending of this story. “Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to undertake a teleological reading. The artists who began painting in 1925 had no idea what would happen in 1933,” he clarifies.
On the left the oil painting “Young Man” (1921) by Anton Rinderscheidt. Right “Maler” (1926), a portrait of the painter Anton Rinderscheidt by the photographer August Sander, who seems to have taken up the features of the model in his painting.Gallery Berinson / The Photographic Collection/SK Foundation Culture / Sander Archive © Adagp, Paris, 2022
Although the Nazis burned the movement to the stake, branded its creators as “cultural Bolsheviks” and forced its greatest painters, such as George Grosz or Max Beckmann, into exile, some of its stylistic traits remained intact. The purification of Expressionism by this school seems to be in dialogue with Adolf Loos’ theses on the “immorality” of ornament. Without going further, the poster for the landmark 1925 exhibition was illustrated with an inexplicable neoclassical-style building that would have such fortune a few years later. Some of its members continued to work under the new regime, like Christian Schad, although they never openly supported it, while Weiner Peiner, who was part of that first exhibition, became an artist admired by the Nazis: one of his rural landscapes, custodians of the German language Essences were given to Hitler when he came to power. Most of its members, however, belonged to its left wing, which sought to reflect the poverty and marginalization that rampant industrialization had caused in the country. The exhibition reflects the fascination with Fordist productivism after the injection of US capital into post-war Germany, which enriched the very companies that would later undoubtedly finance Hitler’s election campaign. But it also leaves room for the losers of this system, workers, beggars, gypsies and other outcasts, who in some images leave the anonymous masses and express something like mourning.
“It’s often in contrast to the 1920s and 1930s, when the transition was smoother than you think. There was no dry cut,” says the inspector
The exhibition claims that in 1920s painting everything became still life, including people. Man became mere architecture, a fragile building no longer safe from bombs and demolitions, like those old neighborhoods that were razed to the ground during the first wave of rationalism in cities like Frankfurt or Cologne. Man will henceforth be an interchangeable and disposable object, just like Marcel Breuer’s demountable pieces of furniture. In the art of that time, the personality or psychology of the model no longer plays a role. Only your job and your social class count. The artists will classify the population as if they were entomologists. The best example is the photographer August Sander, who occupies a central place in the exhibition as if he were the star of his own anthology within the exhibition.
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Sander undertook a monumental project, Men of the Twentieth Century, with which he aimed to scrutinize all social groups of the Weimar Republic, in a grand national taxonomy ranging from businessmen to peasants, from writers to the lunatics, from political prisoners to the first Nazis in uniform. The communicating vessels between photography and painting are another leitmotif of the exhibition. It is evident that the first discipline influenced the second as it moved away from artistic subjectivity. “Although it was later understood that photography is also a construction, at the time it seemed to be a more realistic art than painting,” explains Lampe. In reality, this influence was mutual. This is shown by some of Sander’s compositions, which appear to be derived from Otto Dix’s paintings. For example, a 1931 snapshot of a secretary might have been inspired by Dix’s well-known portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden five years earlier, which still shows relative misogyny today.
Left “Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden” (1926) by Otto Dix. Right “Secretary of West German Broadcasting in Cologne” (1931), by August Sander. Center Pompidou / The Photographic Collection / SK Foundation Culture / Sander Archive © Adagp, Paris, 2022 © Adagp, Paris, 2022 /
It’s another lesson from the exhibition, dedicated to a style that sold as omniscient neutrality what seems today to be a growing fondness for caricature and veiled criticism of a society undergoing brutal transformation. The Berlin of the 1920s went down in history as a paradise of debauchery and tolerance, the capital of the homosexual subculture that reigned supreme in its 170 nightly cabarets, and of women’s liberation, which won the right to vote in 1918. The portrait of the Pompidou is much more ambivalent. “All that there was, but also the other side of the coin. Some artists were afraid of this emancipation, of this genre confusion, and reacted with violence,” said Lampe. The exhibition illustrates this through images collecting sex crimes that served to “symbolically kill women,” according to the curator. In his notorious portrait of the jeweler Karl Krall, Dix himself captures all the homophobic clichés of the time, which used to equate homosexuality with hermaphroditism. The exhibition shows this canvas alongside a 1922 film that summarizes the thesis of doctor Eugen Steinach, who believed that this sexual orientation was a violation of the biological order that could be corrected through surgery. In another of his best known paintings, Dix portrayed Anita Berber, a bisexual dancer and junkie whose face was consumed by sin as if it were an omen of her death a few months later at the age of 29. His appearance seems anything but a celebration of the amorality of this transgressive character.
At the end of the exhibition, a semi-transparent wall connects the beginning of the tour with the last room dedicated to the exhibition organized by the Nazis when they came to power in 1933 to denigrate and bury the movement. Only eight years have passed, in which the new objectivity from the height of modernism has become the prelude to degenerate art. However, it will never fully die. It will influence successive schools of inexhaustible figuration, from Balthus to the latest African American painters. Without considering its roots in socialist realism, which reinterpreted its flat surfaces, its simple forms and its didactic spirit, which would also permeate the epic theater of Brecht, the “utilitarian” poetry of the interwar period, or the so-called Zeitoper or “opera stream”. Goebbels undoubtedly did not see that coming.
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