Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)
Summary of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)
Eschewing the idealism and utopianism that marked the first decade of the 20th century and disillusioned by a World War that wreaked havoc on bodies and society, the artists associated with Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity as it is translated in English, presented an unsentimental realism to address contemporary culture. Disgusted with the corruption apparent throughout the Weimar Republic but also entranced by new freedoms, this diverse group of artists did not necessarily share a style but rather a commitment to expose the objective truth underlying contemporary ills. Employing caricature, satire, Neoclassicism, and even Surrealism, artists such as Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix, and August Sander portrayed leaders, bureaucrats, bohemians, laborers, and themselves unflinchingly, each complicit in the society they inhabited. The artists highlighted the social and political turmoil of life emphasized through war-profiteers, beggars, and prostitutes. They explored the rise of the metropolis with its freedoms and sexual liberation, but noted the increasing alienation from nature and rural life.
While their version of realism was initially regarded by some art historians as retrograde, Neue Sachlichkeit's variants would go on to later influence Magic Realism and German art of the 1960s as well as contemporary photography as propagated by Bernd and Hilla Becher.
- The Neue Sachlichkeit artists embraced realism in defiance of trends towards abstraction but renounced the idiosyncratic subjectivities espoused by early German Expressionists. They instead combined their realism with a healthy dose of the biting protests of the Dada movement. For the most part, their realism was not a traditional mimeticism but a distorted and dark realism that aimed to expose the moral degradation they witnessed in German society.
- While all of the artists were committed to depicting current affairs, their styles ranged from a satirical Verism to a nostalgic Classicism to an uncanny Magical Realism. Despite the stylistic differences, many of the artists preferred more static compositions rather than dynamic ones, rendered their subjects with great precision, and eradicated the traces of the painting process and all gestural elements.
- Portraiture, and self-portraiture, was common among the Neue Sachlichkeit artists. Whichever style the artist practiced, there is usually a tension in the portrait between the individual being represented and the type, or roll, that person plays in society. In the effort to paint the truth of the person, Neue Sachlichkeit portraits do not shy away from unflattering details or unsettling psychological effects.
- Neue Sachlichkeit photographers shared the painter's desire to portray the objective truth of reality, but for the most part they avoided the social and political commentary that underlies so much of the painting.
Overview of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)
Before World War I, Expressionism, as practiced by the groups Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke, held sway in Germany. Inspired by the exoticism of non-Western art and the dynamism of modern, urban life, these artists abandoned the traditional conceptions of art and searched for a language that was highly intuitive and emotional. Artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emile Nolde focused on the individual's inner world, highlighting the subjective perspective of seeing and understanding the world. If the idealism of Expressionism reigned before World War I, Dadaism, founded in 1916 in Zurich and spreading to Berlin shortly thereafter, embodied the nihilism and anti-art sentiments felt by many artists during the war. The fierce critique of war and bourgeois culture led to the rise of the photomontages of Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann after the war.
Important Art and Artists of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)
In this terrifying scene, Beckmann depicts a chaotic and violent event. Intruders have taken a family hostage, overturned their belongings, and are torturing them. The father hangs from his neck while one of the men twists his arm. Beckmann implies that one of the invaders raped the mother, with her wrists bound and her legs splayed and backside exposed, and a blond-haired child reaches out as another man attempts to carry her out of the room.
Beckmann intensifies the emotional charge of the scene with an illogical composition. For example, the woman seems to occupy the space in the foreground, and yet her hands are bound to a post that appears to be in the background. This distortion of space along with the exaggerated and fractured figures show Bekcmann's debt not only to Cubism but Expressionism as well, making The Night a transitional painting between Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit.
Having been supportive of the Great War, Beckmann became disillusioned with war and violence after having served as a medic in the military. Subsequently, he claimed that the role of the artist was to portray the "calamity" of the current situation: "We must be a part of all the misery which is coming. We have to surrender our heart and our nerves....It's the only course of action which might give purpose to our superfluous and selfish existence (as artists) that we give people a picture of their fate."
While Beckmann saw nothing good of the violence that the war had wrought, the scene is not without some ambivalence. As art critic Jonathan Jones argues that the scene "connects itself with images of sex and nocturnal adventure, especially with a scene in William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress, where we see the Rake indulging himself at a house of ill repute in London.". From this perspective, the work echoes a complexity of emotions, combining both "pain and pleasure, torture and desire." Both perpetrators and victims are rendered in the same way, thus in some sense rendering them on equal footing despite the events transpiring.
The painting depicts two bare-chested ladies dancing on a stage, with classical musicians in full tuxedoes playing behind them. Men in suits and official uniforms casually observe the scene. Painted just after the war, Schlichter provides a glimpse into the popular musical cabarets, with their suggestive female performers, that were so popular at the time.
These cabarets were known to be places where drugs and sex were in abundant supply. In normalizing the dancers, likely also prostitutes, the painting acts as a criticism and satirical analysis of society's decadence, a main theme of the New Objectivity movement. Schlichter's use of bright colors, his caricature-like portrayal of the men, and the awkwardness of the women underscore that the Neue Sachlichkeit artists were not interested in meticulously representing the details of what they saw but exposing the underlying truth of the current reality, which they saw as corrupt and bankrupt.
The subject of the cabaret went on to enjoy a life in popular culture, including the 1951 musical Cabaret, and the later film adaptation in 1972 that featured Liza Minelli. These depictions, however, were largely nostalgic and not quite as searing.
One of some 80 portraits painted over his life, here Max Beckmann presents himself in a suit and tie, holding a cigarette, seated before an ochre-colored wall. Perhaps more than the other Neue Sachlichkeit artists, Beckmann probed himself and his inner life in numerous self-portraits. Although he is often known for his "expressionist" language, he rejected the term, the movement, and their artistic ideas altogether. His time as an army medic led to a nervous breakdown, and the misery he witnessed during the war was reflected in his painting style. As critic Edward Sorel explained, "The brutality that they endured or witnessed scarred their psyches and darkened their outlook forever."
During this time, Beckmann frequented the house of Dr. Heinrich Simon, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, and another frequent guest recalled Beckmann during these meetings, "Nothing about him betrayed that he was an artist, but one sensed that in this circle of important men sat one who surpassed them all in concentrated power. His angular head was set on a short neck on his solidly built, athletic body. His face was hard, his profile sharp... not unlike a military inspector... He wore clothes that were too tight and looked like a workman in his Sunday best....His disdain for people was considerable. But under his prickly shell he concealed a highly vulnerable sensitivity, one that he sometimes mockingly exposed." In this particular portrait, Beckman holds a saffron-colored, red polka-dotted scarf on his lap, which references the costume of a clown, a common subject in Beckmann's painting, and thus undermines, or mocks, the dominance he transmitted. Beckmann was not above probing and criticizing his own self as he did other subjects.