A German art movement of the 1920s and early 1930s. It was partly a response to the experience of the First World War, with images containing elements of satire and social commentary. Stylistically it was sober and restrained, moving away from Expressionism to depictions based on close observation. Major figures associated with this style are George Grosz, Otto Dix and Kathe Kollwitz.
The Origins of the Movement
In the years following the First World War the introspective, romantic language of Expressionism that had spread across Europe and America no longer seemed relevant. People were cynical and disillusioned by widespread destruction and poverty; in an attempt to express the harsh realities of post-war life a return to realism gradually emerged.
The anti-art nihilism of Dada that began in Zurich in 1916 expressed this reactionary, cynical state of mind, with potent ideas that would become popular across Europe. Dada ideas were developed further by Expressionists Max Pechstein and Cesar Klein when they founded the artist collective The November Group in November 1918 in Berlin. With over 100 members across Germany including many former Dadaists, they practiced a new form of objective realism, with several exhibitions held throughout the 1920s.
In 1925 curator Gustav F Hartlaub organised an exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Mannheim, titled the Neue Sachlichkeit, (New Objectivity) including several members of The November Group, who he described as, ‘artists who have retained or regained their fidelity to positive, tangible reality.’ Included in the exhibition were Otto Dix, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz and Max Beckmann. While styles and locations across Germany varied, the group was united by an interest in objective reality, where Otto Dix explained they ‘wanted to see things quite naked, clearly, almost without art.’
Verists and Classicists
Hartlaub defined New Objectivity in two distinct, politicised groups in 1922, ‘I see a right wing and a left wing. The former conservative to classicist… the other, left wing, harshly contemporary… the true face of our time.’
The left wing group became known as the Verists, derived from the Latin Verus, or true. They expressed the traumas of war and those affected by it with graphic attention to detail, often in satirical, grotesque caricatures. Grosz, Dix, Kollwitz and Max Beckmann were included in this group, sharing a highly critical view of society and expressing a bitter cynicism about the failures of modernity. In Grosz’s Die Besitzkroten (Toads of Property), 1920 three powerful men are depicted as ugly, corrupt figures, with one wearing a swastika tie pin. Dix often portrayed injured soldiers with exaggerated detail, seen in Kartenspieler (Cardplayers), 1920, while Beckmann represents emaciated figures in abject poverty in Die Holle (Hell): Der Hunger (Hunger), 1919. Beckmann wrote in 1919, ‘My pictures are a reproach to God for all that he does wrong.’ Kollwitz’s figures are more lifelike, but often laden down with grief or sadness, as seen in Gesenkter Frauenkopf (Woman with Bowed Head), 1905.
In contrast, Hartlaub’s right wing group were referred to as the Classicists. Collectively they expressed a rational sense of order derived from Italian painters including Carlo Carra and Giorgio de Chirico, without delving into the critical social issues explored by the Verists. Prominent members included Georg Schrimpf, Alexander Kanoldt , Carlo Mense, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen and Wilhelm Heise.
Documentary photography became increasingly popular during this time, replacing the previous fashion for mysterious, poetic imagery. For many artists, photography was the ideal medium to capture an objective reality and subjects varied from the industrial, technological and architectural to still life arrangements and portraiture, defined by angular shapes, ordered arrangements and sharp focus, in a style referred to as New Photography. August Sander’s extensive range of photographs have been affiliated with this group, particularly his honest portraits of Germans from all walks of society. With their emphasis on gritty subjects from ordinary life, such photographers were generally in allegiance with Hartlaub’s Verists, expressing the honest truth of their surroundings.
Art critic Franz Roh first coined the term Magical Realism in 1925 to describe New Objectivity, but the phrase is more commonly associated with later painters who combined New Objectivity’s realism with surreal, otherworldly elements. Prominent European examples include paintings by Albert Carel Willink, Carl Hofer and Franz Radziwill, as well as Max Beckmann’s later paintings. The Magical Realism style became popular in America, in paintings by Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, Andrew Wyeth and Frida Kahlo and also spread into other media, including literature and film.
By the early 1930s the rise of Nazism was progressively destroying the New Objectivity style. Wilhelm Frick, the Reich minister of interior renounced the movement, stating that the ‘completely un-German constructs carrying on under the name of New Objectivity must come to an end.’ In the early 1930s many of the New Objectivity artists had work confiscated, destroyed, or ridiculed in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, forcing them to stop painting, or to flee the country. The probing, analytical qualities of New Objectivity were important precursors to Photorealism and Hyperrealism in the 1960s. The style also proved influential on the Capital Realism of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter in Germany, who continued to dissect cultural imagery with the same cynical, subversive eye.