Magazine article Artforum International

The Real Thing: Hal Foster on "New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919-1933"

Magazine article Artforum International

The Real Thing: Hal Foster on "New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919-1933"

Article excerpt

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 neusacblicb 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 europaischen 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, Bela Balazs, 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 Emigres: 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. …

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