PRINT October 2015


George Grosz, Der Regisseur (The Boss), 1922, photolithograph on paper, 22 3/4 × 16 3/4". © Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

FOR A LONG TIME, Neue Sachlichkeit, the dominant tendency in German art of the 1920s, was seen as a return to order in general and as a reaction against Expressionism and Dada in particular, despite the fact that some neusachlich artists—Max Beckmann, for example—were involved in Expressionism and others, such as George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Christian Schad, were central to Dada. Neue Sachlichkeit was framed in this way by its earliest proponents, Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, who staged the first show on the subject, “Neue Sachlichkeit: Deutsche Malerei seit dem Expressionismus” (New Objectivity: German Painting Since Expressionism), at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1925, and Franz Roh, who published the first study, Nach-Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus; Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (Post-Expressionism: Magic Realism; Problems of the Newest European Painting), in that same year. Neue Sachlichkeit was also questioned in these terms by its earliest detractors, an honor guard of the Left that included Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Bloch, Béla Balázs, and Carl Einstein, who deemed it reactionary both aesthetically and politically. For the most part, art historians of my generation were convinced by that critique; in addition, some of us were provoked by an apparent parallel in the present, for just as neusachlich artists had turned against the avant-gardes of the 1910s, so too had many artists in the 1980s rejected the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s and ’70s. That painting was championed once again was bad enough, but that figuration was also welcomed back was too much, and Neue Sachlichkeit appeared as a partial precedent for this dubious backlash.

Times have changed: Painting, including figurative painting, is pervasive; that art must develop progressively is a minority view; and recent scholarship has shown that Neue Sachlichkeit worked through Expressionism and Dada as much as it reacted against them. (In many ways it was their bastard child.) A key text in this rethinking is Realism After Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (2012) by Devin Fore—the after in his title means “transformed by” more than “pitted against”—but the revision has also come by way of exhibitions, such as “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” directed by Sabine Rewald at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006–2007; “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918–1936,” organized by Kenneth E. Silver at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2010–11; and “New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919–1933,” curated by Stephanie Barron for the Museo Correr in Venice (where it appeared this past summer) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where it opens this month in expanded form). “New Objectivity” is another in an impressive series of shows about twentieth-century German art undertaken by Barron at LACMA, which has included “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” (1991), “Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler” (1997), and “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures” (2009), the latter two in collaboration with Sabine Eckmann.1 “New Objectivity” also comes with an excellent catalogue, coedited by Barron and Eckmann, featuring curators like Matthew S. Witkovsky and Lynette Roth and scholars like Graham Bader and Megan R. Luke, for whom the polemics of old are not so pressing.

It is a good moment, then, to look back at Neue Sachlichkeit. This was “a cracking age,” as Bloch put it, for Germany was “in decay and in labor at the same time”: Politically, a disastrous war was followed by failed revolutions in several cities and bloody street battles between the Right and the Left; economically, runaway inflation was followed by foreign investment, partial reconstruction, and total collapse.2 In some respects, Neue Sachlichkeit registers this tumultuous period in the diversity of its styles and the instability of its positions, which range from the scabrous satires of Dix and Grosz, through the documentary studies of August Sander and Hans Finsler, to the escapist traditionalisms of Georg Schrimpf and Alexander Kanoldt. Such heterogeneity also makes the movement difficult to come to terms with. Hartlaub proposed the rubric that stuck, but is this art consistently “objective” or “sober,” two common translations of sachlich? Or “strict,” “static,” and “quiet,” as Roh described “Post-Expressionism”?3 Such adjectives suit the photography better than the painting, and even then not all of it. (One merit of the LACMA show is that it presents the two together.) The portraits of bohemian writers, diseased prostitutes, and crippled veterans, as well as the scenes of crazed militarists, gluttonous capitalists, and pompous politicians, painted by Dix, Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, and others, are hardly detached or cool. Rather, they are marked by a rash “subjectivism,” a holdover from Expressionism that Georg Lukács decried as a sign of “bourgeois decadence,” but this subjectivism has turned rancorous, with the negativity of Dada largely retained. (Even artists like Schad, who painted figures coolly, did so in a way that often sears; he reserved his iciest touch for his own Self-Portrait with Model of 1927). At work in this art is a volatile dialectic of rationalization and irrationality that astute observers like Kracauer and Bloch already detected in Weimar society at large. While most neusachlich images favor one pole or the other, the best catch this dialectic in action.

HARTLAUB DIVIDED Neue Sachlichkeit into two parties: a “left wing” of “Verists” like Dix, committed—through “obsessive self-exposure”—“to unveil the reality of chaos as the true countenance of our time,” and a “right wing” of “classicists” like Schrimpf, concerned, in the face of this same chaos, to find “timeless values” and “to sanctify everything sound and healthy.”4 This binary is a stark one, however, and exceptions crop up everywhere. On which side do we place the typological portraits of Sander, for example, or the object studies of Aenne Biermann, another gifted photographer overshadowed by male colleagues like Albert Renger-Patzsch? So, too, some painters, such as Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, split the difference stylistically between realist and classical camps, while others, including Georg Scholz, moved gradually from the left wing to the right. In short, Neue Sachlichkeit tends to elude not only the descriptive terms but also the stylistic oppositions set up to comprehend it.

The same thing happens to the binaries that structure the five sections of “New Objectivity”: democracy and war, city and country, man and machine, still life and commodity, type and portrait. Often in the Weimar Republic, democracy was war continued by other means. As seen in photos by Renger-Patzsch and Arthur Köster, industrial expansion blurred the lines between the urban and the rural, and as painted by Herbert Ploberger and others, the worker and the technician were well advanced in their mimetic adaptation to the mechanistic and the instrumental. In the still lifes of Kanoldt, Scholz, and Fritz Burmann, a plant might appear as abstractly alien as a product (this is especially true of the ubiquitous cactus, a fad of the time), and even as some portraitists like Sander insisted on social types, as dictated by profession or class or both, others like Dix focused on the eccentric and the nonconformist, the symptomatic and the perverse. As Neue Sachlichkeit troubles such oppositions, it, too, is rendered unstable, but therein lies much of the interest of the movement.

Christian Schad, Selbstbildnis mit Modell (Self-Portrait with Model), 1927, oil on wood, 30 × 24 1/4". © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

THIS TROUBLING of categories is also visited on the rubrics of realism and classicism, both of which undergo a sea change in Neue Sachlichkeit. Some of the painters bear a family resemblance to realist forebears like Courbet and Menzel, for they, too, are pledged against the ideal and committed to the real—the real in a sense that ranges from the everyday and the factual to the overlooked and the downtrodden. Yet again, this is a realism after modernism, one that assimilates as often as it rejects the figural and spatial disjunctions produced by avant-garde devices like collage and montage. (In this respect, the realism-versus-modernism debates waged by Lukács, Bloch, Brecht, and Theodor W. Adorno regarding literature have little purchase on this art—another opposition bites the dust here.) This is also to say that Neue Sachlichkeit understands realism to be a convention, a code, which often lends the painting, for all its apparent facticity, an ontological thinness. (Those exotic cacti, for example, seem both actual and phantasmic.) But then this thinness might be real, too, true to an environment that modernization had begun to abstract (as evidenced in the bare facades in paintings by Grosz, Davringhausen, and Karl Völker) or, even more, to an environment where the referent had begun to vanish (as in “All that is solid melts into air”). There are semisurreal passages in otherwise realist paintings by Franz Radziwill and others that show a “second nature” of factories and offices eclipsing the first. And in Station SD/2, 1933, Max Radler depicts a train stopped at a station; a mundane scene, to be sure, yet the lone figure in uniform there stands guard over a world that has largely disappeared.

Like realism, classicism is both affirmed and disturbed in Neue Sachlichkeit. Even with Schrimpf, its standard-bearer here, the classical appears as a fata morgana, a lost object of longing, like the Italianate landscape upon which the two melancholic girls gaze out in his On the Balcony, 1927, and from which the frightened little boy is barred in his Child Portrait (Peter in Sicily), 1925.5 When it is brought close, the classical is more distorted, as in the statuary fragments that appear in the work of Beckmann and others, but then it came to Neue Sachlichkeit already estranged in the pittura metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà, which influenced both wings of the movement. Another guise of the classical is more problematic still: Sometimes in Neue Sachlichkeit, as often in the Purism of Le Corbusier, Amédée Ozenfant, and Fernand Léger, the classical serves to artify machines and commodities, in a chiasmus that updates classicism on the one hand and idealizes modernization on the other. This idealization is a subtext of the celebrated photobook Die Welt ist schön (The World Is Beautiful, 1928), where, to the outrage of Brecht and Benjamin, Renger-Patzsch renders industrial production and consumption not only opaque but, as the title suggests, beautiful. He became the whipping boy for such critics, yet he was hardly alone: Others—Finsler in photography, for example, and Carl Grossberg in painting—also worked in this ideological vein.

If Neue Sachlichkeit shows realism and classicism transformed by modernism, so too does it present people utterly changed by modernity: Many of its figures are maimed by war or bloodied by street violence, warped by work or wizened by unemployment, scarred by sexual mayhem or wasted by drugs and drink. Perhaps its greatest subject, however, is reification, to use the familiar concept that Lukács developed in History and Class Consciousness (1923) to account for the effects of capitalist industry. Roh detected a drive toward “pure objectification” in Neue Sachlichkeit, which we should understand (as he did not) in the double sense articulated by Lukács: As the world becomes more abstract, more alienated, so too does the subject (this is indeed the primary effect of “second nature,” another Lukácsian concept). However, Neue Sachlichkeit also suggests that this objectification might serve as the paradoxical basis for a new rapport between people and things. Some artists did find a delight here—“Joy before the object!” Renger-Patzsch exclaimed—while others looked for a defense, a mimesis of the object that might be taken up as a mode of adaptation and survival.6 Yet even this unsatisfactory reconciliation was never secured, and the world depicted by Neue Sachlichkeit remained, as Roh put it, both “obvious and enigmatic.”

The critic Carl Linfert captured this ambiguity in a 1929 review of neusachlich photography, in which he wrote: “Everything is so apt that nothing is left for us to reply. We are spellbound. But only by naked facts, not by inspiration. The thing itself—and so narrowly and faithfully does the apparatus see it—becomes mute as it never has been before. The thing is as dangerously spellbound as we are ourselves.”7 This spellbinding is also at work in neusachlich paintings: Certain portraits present sitters as hardened into objects, while certain still lifes endow motifs with a weird animation. In such manner, this art troubles yet another opposition, the influential realism-versus-abstraction articulated a generation before by art historian Wilhelm Worringer, who understood realism as a kind of empathic projection onto the world and abstraction as a sign of defensive withdrawal from it. Neue Sachlichkeit bends these poles toward each other: Often enough its realism is an abstraction in this Worringerian sense.

Here, as elsewhere, the camera would seem to objectify more effectively than paint on canvas, yet there is a subjective dimension in neusachlich photos too: In some instances, the implicit gaze of the photographer is almost disaffected, while in others it is overly intense, as if it were too bent on control. (In general, Neue Sachlichkeit lacks the utter techno-optimism of the “New Vision” of Moholy-Nagy and others.) The gaze can appear obsessive in neusachlich paintings as well; in portraits by Davringhausen, Dix, and Schad, the look of the sitter frequently redoubles that of the painter, sometimes to the point of an incipient derangement that disturbs the viewer too. In subjects and scenes alike, Neue Sachlichkeit is drawn to conflict, both hidden and overt; this is not a magic realism, pace Roh, so much as a hysterical realism, alert to how people and places might repress a conflict here, only to manifest it somewhere else (which suggests, in turn, a connection to its French contemporary, Surrealism). Neusachlich painters focus on details in a way that often reimagines them as symptoms: In this paradoxical art of intentional puncta, the clawish hand of a Dix sitter and the fixed stare of a Schad figure take on the force of the traumatically real.

Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Der Träumer (The Dreamer), 1919, oil on canvas, 46 7/8 × 47 5/8". © Reneta Davringhausen.

FOR HARTLAUB, the Verists worked to probe the chaos of the time, while the classicists sought to escape it; but this does not exhaust the neusachlich reactions to the turmoil of the Weimar Republic. Another response was to wrest an order from the confusion, as Sander attempted to do in his great survey of professions and classes. (Benjamin suggested that this “physiognomic gallery” might serve as a “training manual” for German society as a whole.)8 However, in this “cracking age,” social types were also in trouble, or at least in transition—no longer embodied or inhabited in the old ways. Despite the fact that Germany was a belated nation, its “bourgeois dissolution” was already well advanced, and others felt weirdly out of time or place too.9 “I am a discontinued German,” the journalist Kurt Tucholsky wrote to a friend during these years.10 “It is hardly possible or necessary to live the right way anymore,” Bloch added, with a line that could caption any number of neusachlich paintings: “The empty ego forms no shell any more to hide the one inside who is not at home anyway.”11 If Sander represents one neusachlich response, these statements point to another: not to order the chaos but to exacerbate it somehow, to show both victims and victors of Weimar as empty or bashed, lumpen or creaturely. This was the strategy of mimetic exacerbation taken up by Dix, Grosz, and Schlichter, among others. (“He gives kitsch to kitsch,” Einstein wrote of Dix.)12 Neue Sachlichkeit thus dramatized a crisis that was psychological in appearance but social at root: This is what a political-economic crisis looks like when visited on individuals.

Why, then, did Neue Sachlichkeit meet with such skepticism on the Left? For critics, the classical wing was beyond the pale, and the photographic center led by Renger-Patzsch was also problematic. “Less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality,” Brecht (now famously) commented. “A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG tells us next to nothing about these institutions.”13 Such work “plasters over the surface of reality,” Bloch added, while Benjamin provided the coup de grâce: “It has succeeded in transforming even abject poverty—by apprehending it in a fashionably perfected manner—into an object of enjoyment.”14 For all three critics, Neue Sachlichkeit often obfuscated the workings of the capitalist world, but rarely represented the revolutionary forces arrayed against it. Balázs was most emphatic on this point: “That this objectivity behaves like a revolutionary! That this wonderful Dionysian dream, this masochistic ecstasy of self-denial, this wanting to drown in the thing, in the mechanism of social and technological activity, this wanting to be an object, this self-alienation of the human—that it still claims to be socialist! No, this new objectivity has nothing at all to do with revolution, with socialism, or with the proletariat.”15

THE POLITICAL AFTERLIFE of Neue Sachlichkeit was indeed mixed. Some in the classical wing, such as Schrimpf and Radziwill, met with Nazi approval only to be quickly dismissed, while some in the Verist wing, such as Dix and Grosz, met with Nazi condemnation and were soon delivered to the “Degenerate Art” show of 1937. Yet again, the Verists were questioned by the Left too, especially for the aforementioned tendency to represent victims and victors as equally degraded. Such Neue Sachlichkeit was prone to “left-wing melancholy,” Benjamin thought, to a “fatalism in gesture and mode of thought.”16 And when it was not fatalistic, it often appeared histrionic, its “obsessive self-exposure” tipping into exhibitionistic display, its “self-irony” lapsing into cynical reason.17

Nevertheless, this Neue Sachlichkeit did expose a culture in extremis, and still for us today it evokes a society in a state of emergency, where (to use the contemporaneous language of the juridical theorist Carl Schmitt) democracy was often held in contempt, politics seemed driven by a stark agon of friend and enemy, and authority appeared a matter of violent power alone. It is this picturing that makes Neue Sachlichkeit, once dismissed, look current again.

“New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919–1933,” organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, will be on view at LACMA Oct. 4, 2015– Jan. 18, 2016.

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton University. His new book, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, was published by Verso last month.


1. For reviews of some of these shows in this magazine, see Graham Bader on “Glitter and Doom,” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh on “Art of Two Germanys,” and myself on “Chaos and Classicism,” in the January 2007, Summer 2009, and January 2011 issues, respectively.

2. Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times, trans. Neville and Stephen Plaice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 1–3. This is similar to a famous line in the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

3. Franz Roh, Nach-Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (Leipzig: Klinkhardt und Biermann, 1925), 119, trans. in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 493; all other Roh quotations are from this source.

4. Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, “Reply to a Questionnaire” (1922), in Art in Theory, 1900–2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 248.

5. As this (very adulterated) classicism reaches back to the Nazarenes, it is as much late Romantic as it is neo-Neoclassical; that mixture had made for one formula of kitsch already in the generation of Arnold Böcklin.

6. Helmut Lethen takes up these strategies in Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany, trans. Don Reneau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). “They generate two paradoxes, which typify the dual nature of objectivity,” Lethen writes. “On the one hand, codes imply an acceptance of the individual’s status as an object; on the other, they stubbornly hold out the possibility of making that same individual the master of his or her fate” (18).

7. Carl Linfert, “Das modern Lichtbild,” Frankfürter Zeitung, October 6, 1931, 10, quoted by Megan R. Luke in “Still Life and Commodities,” in New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919–1933, ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (Los Angeles: LACMA, 2015), 236. In her excellent essay, Luke, like Linfert, ascribes this effect to commodity fetishism, but that does not fully explain why the object might be “spellbound.”

8. Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography” (1931), in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 520.

9. Walter Benjamin, “Left-Wing Melancholy” (1931), in Selected Writings, 424. Benjamin saw signs of this dissolution in Neue Sachlichkeit.

10. As quoted by Ian King in his introduction to Kurt Tucholsky, Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic (New York: Berlinica Publishing, 2013), 19.

11. Bloch, Heritage of Our Times, 209. The theme of spiritual homelessness runs through the period, from Lukács in The Theory of the Novel (1916) to Siegfried Kracauer in The Salaried Masses (1930).

12. Carl Einstein, “Otto Dix,” Das Kunstblatt 7, no. 3 (March 1923), in Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, 491.

13. Brecht quoted by Benjamin in “Little History of Photography,” 526. This position prompted Benjamin to argue for committed photo-text work à la John Heartfield. How just was the judgment passed on Renger-Patzsch? How capable is any photograph of explicating the complex social relations thrown up by a particular productive mode? Oddly, Brecht and Benjamin seem to converge here with Lukács in the demand for a “realism” that “mediates” a social totality.

14. Ernst Bloch, “Discussing Expressionism” (ca. 1937), in Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Rodney Livingstone et al. (London: New Left Books, 1977), 23; Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer” (1934), in Selected Writings, 775.

15. Béla Balázs, “Sachlichkeit und Sozialismus,” Die neue Weltbühne 24, no. 51 (1928): 916, quoted in Sabine Eckmann, “A Lack of Empathy: On the Realisms of New Objectivity,” in Barron and Eckmann, New Objectivity, 34. In the same text, Balázs calls Neue Sachlichkeit “the aesthetics of the assembly line.”

16. Benjamin, “Left-Wing Melancholy,” 423.

17. The first phrase is from Hartlaub, “Reply to a Questionnaire,” 248; the second is from Einstein, “Otto Dix,” 490.