On the sixth floor of the Center Pompidou in Paris, framed by its spectacular bay windows, a vast multidisciplinary exhibition is currently on display, devoted to the works of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, active in Germany in the 1920s.
In the aftermath of World War I, avant-garde, utopian and idealistic styles were dismissed as superficial by German artists who sought more realistic responses to the everyday world of post-war Germany and the rise of the poverty and corruption in society. The term “Neue Sachlichkeit” was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Mannheim Art Gallery, in 1923 to title an exhibition of paintings and drawings that were neither impressionist nor expressionist, but true to life. The name was quickly adopted to refer to works of art characterized by an emphasis on geometric form and unapologetic realism, but also a deep cynicism, disillusionment and invective satire. The artistic dedication to portraying objective reality included depictions of the political and economic uncertainties of the time, with urban sadness alongside decadence; a world of inequality as well as modern liberation.
It’s the same feeling as the heady 1939 novel of Weimar Germany, Goodbye to Berlinby British-American author Christopher Isherwood, which begins with scenes of modern metropolitan life – bustling streets, consumer goods, sex, glamour, frivolity, electrical signage – rendered through a curiously listless perspective: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” This is art made naughty, steely, impactful.
More than 900 works at the Center Pompidou, across visual arts, literature, film, theater and music, trace the development of Neue Sachlichkeit from Hartlaub’s exhibition, to its sudden end following the rise of the Nazi party. Famous faces of the movement, including Otto Dix and Georg Grosz, feature prominently – headlined by Dix’s 1925 portrait of a dancer and a fatal Woman Anita Berber, Burning Crimson — but the exhibit also includes plenty of details about subgroups and movement-inspired spinoffs. Neue Sachlichkeit’s split into “right and left” variants – the former offering more timeless depictions, the latter focusing on social issues – is described in detail, with more political works contextualized alongside other forms of artistic protest . Of note is a section on German graphics – one wall is occupied by a collection of 12 engravings by houses of time by Gerd Artnz, which hierarchically represent the organization of capitalist society through different modern buildings or places. Also included are Artnz’s later collaborations with economist Otto Neurath and designer Marie Reidemeister on pictograms, or “isotypes”; a dictionary of 4000 symbols, designed to communicate to the general public statistical data on demography, politics and the economy (pictured above).
Much of the exhibition is devoted to the Neue Sachlichkeit embrace of sexual exploration and the transgression of traditional gender roles. From artwork by German-Jewish artist Gert Wollheim, including the 1926 Untitled Painting Couple, representing two androgynous characters, dressed in clothes with a masculine code; to the effervescent 1928-29 Jeanne Mammen performance of dancer Valeska Gert, bowing around her neck and her hair cropped short, pursing her lips happily at the viewer; to Dix’s famous portrait of monocled journalist Sylvia von Harden (photo below right), which later featured in the hit 1972 musical Cabaret – Center Pompidou offers a comprehensive picture of Weimar Germany’s new women, LGBTQ+ communities and sexual freedoms. Importantly, the exhibit also includes information about the repression suffered by many people in Germany during and after the rise of the Nazis. In the mid-1930s, artists like Mammen and Dix were denounced by Nazi authorities as “degenerates” and much of their work was destroyed. Many artists themselves have gone into exile.
But the exhibition is not just a history of modern German art, and it crucially situates Neue Sachlichkeit within wider international contexts. The influence of American business, functionalism and utility are well examined – including Bauhaus influences like the Fuld telephone, the first cradle telephone, which was designed by Marcel Breuer and Richard Schadewell in 1927-28. Emphasis is also placed on works of art from or inspired by German-speaking cultures across Europe, such as reportage (e.g. Otto Umbehr’s techno-utopian photomontage of Austrian and Czechoslovakian journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, known as “The Racing Reporter”) and theatre, including works by Austrian composer Ernst Křenek.
But at the heart of the floor space is a winding exhibit within an exhibit, showing the portrait photography of August Sander, whose images of individuals from all walks of life – which, though often left unnamed, were strictly classified into different professions – was an attempt to capture a representative view of contemporary German life. His first book, the 1929 Antlitz der Zeit (The Face of Our Time) contained 60 photographs from this much larger project – although it was seized and destroyed by the Nazis in 1936. During the war, Sander also photographed people from Eastern Europe who had been forced to work in Germany. Many of his photographs, including thousands of negatives, perished in bombings and fires during the war – but some survived, and his production has since been rediscovered, and his photographs are now hailed as an important testimony to the changing face. of Europe between the two wars in the interwar period. beginning of the 20th century.
One of his most famous images – and the work presented at the very start of the Center Pompidou exhibition – young farmers, shows three young friends, dapper in hats, suits and walking sticks, and caught almost unawares, as they stroll along a field towards a dance. Taken on the eve of World War I, the photograph has been variously analyzed by critics, including John Berger, as suggestive of the end of an era in history. But in their neat attire and neat, choreographed poses, photography also marks the end of an era in the arts. New Objectivity, with its gritty, witty gloom, was the Otherworld.