New Objectivity

New Objectivity
Made in Germany (Den macht uns keiner nach), by George Grosz, drawn in pen 1919, photo-lithograph published 1920 in the portfolio God with us (Gott mit Uns). Sheet 48.3 × 39.1 cm. In the collection of the MOMA

The New Objectivity (in German: Neue Sachlichkeit) is a term used to characterize the attitude of public life in Weimar Germany as well as the art, literature, music, and architecture created to adapt to it. Rather than some goal of philosophical objectivity, it was meant to imply a turn towards practical engagement with the world—an all-business attitude, understood by Germans as intrinsically American: "The Neue Sachlichkeit is Americanism, cult of the objective, the hard fact, the predilection for functional work, professional conscientiousness, and usefulness."[1]

The term was originally the title of an art exhibition staged by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim, to showcase artists who were working in a post-expressionist spirit, but it took a life of its own, going beyond Hartlaub's intentions.[2] As these artists rejected the self-involvement and romantic longings of the expressionists, Weimar intellectuals in general made a call to arms for public collaboration, engagement, and rejection of romantic idealism.

The movement essentially ended in 1933 with the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis to power.



Although 'New Objectivity' has been the most common translation of 'Neue Sachlichkeit', other translations have included 'New Matter-of-factness', 'New Resignation', and 'New Dispassion'. An introductory note by author Dennis Crockett in German post-expressionism explains that there is no direct English translation, and breaks down the meaning in the original German:

Sachlichkeit should be understood by its root, Sach, meaning "thing", "fact", "subject", or "object." Sachlich could be best understood as "factual", "matter-of-fact", "impartial", "practical", or "precise"; Sachlichkeit is the noun form of the adjective/adverb and usually implies "matter-of-factness".[3]

In particular, Crockett tries to argue against the view implied by the translation of 'New Resignation', which he says is a popular misunderstanding of the attitude it describes. The idea that it conveys 'resignation' comes from the notion that the age of great socialist revolutions was over and that the left-leaning intellectuals who were living in Germany at the time wanted to adapt themselves to the social order represented in the Weimar Republic. Crockett tries to ground the word to its original meaning as intended by Hartlaub, and points out that the art of the Neue Sachlichkeit was meant to be more forward in political action than the modes of Expressionism it was turning against.


Leading up to World War II, much of the art world was under the influence of Futurism and Expressionism, both of which abandoned any sense of order or commitment to objectivity or tradition. Expressionism was in particular the dominant form of art in Germany, and it was represented in many different facets of public life—in theater, in painting, in architecture, in poetry, and in literature.

Expressionists abandoned nature and sought to express emotional experience, often centering their art around angst — inner turmoil; whether in reaction to the modern world, to alienation from society, or in the creation of personal identity. In concert with this evocation of angst and unease with bourgeois life, expressionists also echoed some of the same feelings of revolution as did Futurists. This is evidenced by a 1919 anthology of expressionist poetry titled Menschheitsdämmerung, which translates to “Dawn of Humanity”—meant to suggest that humanity was in a 'twilight'; that there was an imminent demise of some old way of being and beneath it the urgings of a new dawning.[4]

Critics of expressionism came from many circles. From the left, a strong critique began with Dadaism. The early exponents of Dada had been drawn together in Switzerland, a neutral country in the war, and seeing their common cause, wanted to use their art as a form of moral and cultural protest—they saw shaking off the constraints of artistic language in the same way they saw their refusal of national boundaries. They wanted to use their art in order to express political outrage and encourage political action.[5] Expressionism, to Dadaists, expressed all of the angst and anxieties of society, but was helpless to do anything about it.

Bertold Brecht, a German dramatist, launched another early critique of expressionism, referring to it as constrained and superficial. Just like in politics Germany had a new parliament but lacked parliamentarians, he argued, in literature there was an expression of delight in ideas, but no new ideas, and in theater a 'will to drama', but no real drama. His early plays, Baal and Trommeln in der Nacht (Drums in the Night) express repudations of fashionable interest in Expressionism.

After the destruction of the war, more conservative critics gained force particularly in their critique of the style of expressionism. This was exhibited particularly in Italy in a call for a return to order, but also had influence within Germany.

Pictorial art

Hartlaub first used the term in 1923 in a letter he sent to colleagues describing an exhibition he was planning. In his subsequent article, "Introduction to 'New Objectivity': German Painting since Expressionism," Hartlaub explained,

what we are displaying here is distinguished by the—in itself purely external—characteristics of the objectivity with which the artists express themselves.
The Eclipse of the Sun by George Grosz, 1926

He identified two groups: the verists, who "tear the objective form of the world of contemporary facts and represent current experience in its tempo and fevered temperature;" and the classicists, who "search more for the object of timeless ability to embody the external laws of existence in the artistic sphere."

Although the distinction between verists and classicists is in fact rather fluid, the verists can be thought of as the more revolutionary wing of the Nueue Sachlichkeit. Their vehement form of realism distorted appearances to emphasize the ugly, as they wanted to expose what they considered the ugliness of reality. This art was raw, provocative, and harshly satirical, and were strongly influenced by Dada. Out of Dada's abandonment of any pictoral rules or artistic language was born a “satirical hyperrealism”, as termed by Raoul Hausmann, and of which the best known examples are the graphical works and photo-montages of John Heartfield. Use of collage in these works became a compositional principle to blend reality and art, as if to suggest that to record the facts of reality was to go beyond the most simple appearances of things.[6] This later developed into portraits and scenes by artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Rudolf Schlichter. Portraits would give emphasis to particular features or objects that were seen as distinctive aspects of the person depicted. Satirical scenes often depicted a madness behind what was happening, depicting the participants as cartoon-like.

Other verist artists, like Christian Schad, depicted reality with a clinical precision, which suggested both an empirical detachment and intimate knowledge of the subject. Schad's paintings are characterized "an artistic perception so sharp that it seems to cut beneath the skin", according to the art critic Wieland Schmied.[7] Often, psychological elements were introduced in his work, which suggested an underlying unconscious reality to life.

Max Beckmann, who never considered himself part of any movement, is a giant among the verists even though he is sometimes called an expressionist.

Compared to the verists, the classicists more clearly exemplify the "return to order" that arose in the arts throughout Europe. The classicists included Anton Räderscheidt, Georg Schrimpf, Alexander Kanoldt, and Carl Grossberg. They were a diverse group, encompassing the clinical realism of Grossberg and the gentle neo-primitivism of Schrimpf. The paintings of Räderscheidt were influenced by Antonio Donghi and the metaphysical art of the Italians.

The classicists are best understood by Franz Roh's term Magic Realism, though Roh originally intended 'magical realism' to be synonymous with the Nueue Sachlichkeit as a whole. For Roh, as a reaction to expressionism, the idea was declare “[that] the autonomy of the objective world around us was once more to be enjoyed; the wonder of matter that could crystallize into objects was to be seen anew.”[8] With the term, he was emphasizing the “magic” of the normal world as it presents itself to us—how, when we really look at everyday objects, they can appear strange and fantastic.

Albert Renger-Patzsch and August Sander are leading representatives of the "New Photography" movement, which brought a sharply focused, documentary quality to the photographic art where previously the self-consciously poetic had held sway.


Panorama of the IG Farben Building from the south, demonstrating how the curved shape of the building's façade reduces the impact of its scale.

New Objectivity in architecture, as in painting and literature, describes German work of the transitional years of the early 1920s in the Weimar culture, as a direct reaction to the stylistic excesses of Expressionist architecture and the change in the national mood. Architects such as Bruno Taut, Erich Mendelsohn and Hans Poelzig turned to New Objectivity's straightforward, functionally-minded, matter-of-fact approach to construction, which became known in Germany as Neues Bauen ("New Building"). The Neues Bauen movement, flourishing in the brief period between the adoption of the Dawes plan and the rise of the Nazis, encompassed public exhibitions like the Weissenhof Estate, the massive urban planning and public housing projects of Taut and Ernst May, and the influential experiments at the Bauhaus.


Bertold Brecht, from his opposition to the focus on the individual in expressionist art, began a collaborative method to play production, starting with his Man Equals Man project.[9] This approach to theater-craft began to be known as 'Brechtian', and the collective of writers and actors who he worked with are known as the 'Brechtian collective'.


New Objectivity in music, as in the visual arts, rejected the sentimentality of late Romanticism and the emotional agitation of expressionism. Composer Paul Hindemith may be considered both a New Objectivist and an expressionist, depending on the composition, throughout the 1920s; for example, his wind quintet Kleine Kammermusik Op. 24 No. 2 (1922) designed as Gebrauchsmusik, or one may compare his operas Sancta Susanna (part of a fairly expressionist trilogy) and Neues vom Tage (a parody of modern life).[10] His music typically harkens back to baroque models and makes use of traditional forms and stable polyphonic structures, together with modern dissonance and jazz-inflected rhythms. Ernst Toch and Kurt Weill also composed New Objectivist music during the 1920s. Though known late in life for his austere interpretations of the classics, in earlier years, conductor Otto Klemperer was the most prominent to ally himself with this movement.


The New Objectivity movement is usually considered to have ended at the fall of the Weimar Republic when the National Socialists under Adolf Hitler seized power in January 1933. The Nazi authorities condemned much of the work of the New Objectivity as "degenerate art", so that works were seized and destroyed and many artists were forbidden to exhibit. A few, including Karl Hubbuch, Adolf Uzarski, and Otto Nagel, were among the artists entirely forbidden to paint. While some of the major figures of the movement went into exile, they did not carry on painting in the same manner. George Grosz emigrated to America and adopted a romantic style, and Max Beckmann's work by the time he left Germany in 1937 was, by Franz Roh's definitions, expressionism.

The influence of New Objectivity outside of Germany can be seen in the work of artists like Balthus, Salvador Dalí (in such early works as his Portrait of Luis Buñuel of 1924), Auguste Herbin, Maruja Mallo, Cagnaccio di San Pietro, Grant Wood, Adamson-Eric, and Juhan Muks.


  1. ^ Crockett p.1
  2. ^ Crockett p.1
  3. ^ Crockett, p.xix
  4. ^ Midgley 2000, p.15
  5. ^ Midgley 2000, p.15
  6. ^ Midgley 2000, p.15
  7. ^ Schmied 1978, p.19
  8. ^ Zamora and Ferris 1995
  9. ^ Midgley 2000, p.16
  10. ^ Albright 2004, 278


  • Albright, Daniel, ed. (2004) Modernism and Music: an anthology of sources. Chicago: University of Chicago Press ISBN 0-226-01267-0
  • Bonet, Juan Manuel, et al. (1997) Realismo Magico: Franz Roh y la pintura europea 1917-1936. Valencia: IVAM Institut Valencià d'Art Modern ISBN 84-482-1527-3 (Spanish and English)
  • Crockett, Dennis (1999) German Post-Expressionism: the art of the Great Disorder 1918-1924". University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press
  • Kaes, Anton; Jay, Martin; Dimendberg, Edward, eds (1994) The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, p. 493. Berkeley: University of California Press. Cited in Albright (2004).
  • Lethen, Helmut. Neue Sachlichkeit 1924-1932: Studien zur Literatur des "Weissen Sozialismus." Stuttgart: Metzler, 1970.
  • Michalski, Sergiusz (1994) New Objectivity. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen. ISBN 3-8228-9650-0
  • Schmied, Wieland (1978) Neue Sachlichkeit and German Realism of the Twenties. London: Arts Council of Great Britain. ISBN 0-7287-0184-7
  • Willett, John (1978) The New Sobriety: art and politics in the Weimar Period, 1917-1933. London: Thames & Hudson (Reissued by Da Capo Press, New York, 1996 as "Art and Politics in the Weimar Period" ISBN 0306807246)
  • Midgley, David. Writing Weimar: Critical Realism in German Literature, 1918-1933. Durham and London: Oxford University Press. 

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