New Objectivity: Art, Architecture & Literature

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How does a culture deal with being demoralized? In this lesson, we'll examine the New Objectivity movement and see how it represented a reaction to changes in the world at that time.

Neue Sachlichkeit

Imagine being part of an empire that is dissolved, then rebuilt into a makeshift republic, blamed for the largest scale conflict the world had ever seen, and asked to rebuild. How do you deal with that?

This was the situation that Germany found itself in after World War I, as the German Empire broke apart and the Weimar Republic emerged. Artists at the time sought to capture German confusion, disillusionment, and uncertainty with their place in the world. One of the artistic and literary movements to emerge out of this trend was Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity.

Context and Characteristics

To understand New Objectivity, we have to understand what was happening in Germany prior to World War I. German artists were largely devoted to an avant-garde and utopian style of art known as German Expressionism. In art, literature, architecture, and film, German Expressionism presented distorted figures and jarring colors in order to elicit a strong emotional response. It was colorful, ornamental, and decadent, and leaned heavily towards the growing trends in abstraction.

German Expressionism maintained a following after World War I, but to many artists it simply didn't reflect German society any more. The Germany of Expressionism was not the same Germany of the 1920s. So, they stopped creating utopian and emotional art, and started bringing art back to a focus on the real world, real social problems, and real cultural issues. This emotionless realism was part of what was called a ''return to order,'' a backtracking away from the avant-garde and reestablishment of aesthetics that were familiar. In contrast to idealist avant-garde art, New Objectivity was unsentimental and unwilling to ignore the reality of Germany's imbalanced place in the world. It tackled this head on, taking a cue from the Dada movement and accepting their fate with satire and a hint of mockery.

Painting of three prostitutes by German artist Otto Dix

New Objectivity in Visual Arts

New Objectivity looked a little different in various media, but it first appeared in the visual arts, and specifically in painting. In fact, the term ''Neue Sachlichkeit'' was first used as the name for an exhibition in the 1920s that embraced this emerging realism. New Objectivity art was representational, rejecting the avant-garde push towards abstraction, and presented an often-satirical look at the corruption, inefficiency, and demoralization of the Weimar Republic. It was a searing critique of German politics and society and, to a degree, of humanity itself.

Some of the most influential artists who were associated with the movement from the beginning were Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckman. These artists focused on depicting the casualties of WWI, crime and prostitution, old age, corrupt politics, and other things that were not beautiful, but gave the artists a chance to engage with the realities of their world. Portrait painting also became very popular among New Objectivity artists, and provided a chance to deal with the impact of demoralization on the individual German people.

The Gray Day, by George Grosz

New Objectivity in Architecture

While New Objectivity was first really identified in visual arts, it also had notable impacts on architecture. Considering the destruction of World War I, there was a lot that needed to be rebuilt. New Objectivity architecture is often referred to as Neues Bauen, or New Building. In essence, it was a turn toward Modernism and its controlled, emotionless emphasis of pure architectural elements. Expressionist architecture was characterized by experimental and often distorted forms, lots of ornamentation, and the use of unusual materials. Neues Bauen architecture, on the other hand, found solace in the Modernist appreciation for exposed, raw materials like steel, concrete, and glass. These buildings tended to be less grandiose than others, and even de-emphasized their sizes and scales.

The IG Farben Building, a New Objectivity structure

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