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Though often described as a unified artistic movement, New Objectivity, or Neue Sachlichkeit, is better understood as the spirit of an era, or zeitgeist, rather than a strictly defined aesthetic or ideological framework. Germany’s Weimar Republic was marked by a turbulent period at its 1918 inception, followed by relative stabilization from 1924-1929, and a second crisis of political extremism that led to eventual collapse after 1933. Comprised of unique voices and sensibilities, the tendency toward New Objectivity emerged during this particularly volatile period in German history, producing artwork that made visible the social, cultural, and political anxieties of the day.
The term Neue Sachlichkeit was first introduced by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, whose 1925 Kunsthalle Mannheim exhibition of the same name sought to chronicle this pervasive trend in post-World War I art. Artists like George Grosz, a former Dadaist, and Otto Dix, a former Expressionist, assumed critical postures in the aftermath of the war. Reacting against the abstraction and subjectivity that previously characterized much of their work, artists like Grosz and Dix revised their concerns to reflect a new sobriety, choosing instead to represent the harsh conditions of the contemporary urban landscape. Grim social realism and figuration became important stylistic armatures, hence the prevalence of portraiture that emphasizes the vulgar, gritty qualities of sitters and their surroundings.
The artists featured in this exhibition engaged in a biting form of social critique, bearing witness to the trauma of a period defined by political and economic struggle. Unsettling images depict difficult subject matter, including the anguish and desperation of the infirm and unemployed, in an effort to accurately document fundamental societal ills. Neue Sachlichkeit artists vividly catalogued rampant disruptions of the social order, including poverty, violence, discrimination, alienation, exploitation, sexuality and its perversions, greed, and death.
Over the course of 30 years, the late Marvin and Janet Fishman amassed one of the most important collections of early twentieth-century German art. In 2000, the Haggerty Museum of Art received a substantial gift of paintings and drawings from which the works on view were selected. The Fishmans were highly attuned to the challenging content and unique power of Neue Sachlichkeit works and were drawn to the genre because of these qualities. As Marvin Fishman recounted in a 1990 interview:
These German works derive from such a troubled time in the country’s history. That is what we find so compelling. You can’t just simply look at them. You get involved with what they say. The works speak to your mind as well as to your eye, especially those of the Weimar artists who were so involved with the upheavals of the time—the war Germany had lost, the revolution, inflation, Hitler. These paintings and drawings make you think even after you’ve stopped looking at them.
Reinhold Heller, Art in Germany, 1909 – 1936: From Expressionism to Resistance: From the Marvin and Janet Fishman Collection (Munich: Prestel Verlag in association with the Milwaukee Art Museum, 1990), 12.