Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices


By Anna Glazova

The Term of the Neue Sachlichkeit

The term of the Neue Sachlichkeit is not an unproblematic one. While many artistic groups and movements represented in the Weimar Republic can be more or less definitely segregated within the larger context of the art development, the concept of the New Objectivity (probably, the most appropriate translation of die Sachlichkeit) remains much more open to interpretations. Hans Arp's and El Lissitzky's collection of art-"isms" makes sense as far as it is true, that artists of different Weimar Republic groups (as the Dadaists, the Expressionists, the Constructivists) had (despite their common inner conflicts) a certain artistic program in common. Even if manifestos, techniques and particular topics varied from one personality to another they still were united by the idea, what should be changed in the conception of art and artist and how this particular movement could perform these changes. Furthermore, members of these groups mostly used either to work or to exhibit together, arranging group public events (such as Dadaist performative poetry readings, Constructivist journals etc.). Jost Hermand points out: "While Expressionism and Dadaism are still generally recognized as 'movements' today, 'Neue Sachlichkeit', however strongly it might have been proclaimed at the time, was never really viewed as one. It remained an incomplete concept." (1, p. 167) The artists of the New Objectivity tended to work much more individually, and this was a consequence of the new concept of their role in the society. Hermand wrote: "In contrast to Expressionism, at the heart of which had lain many bourgeois artists' illusion that they could radically transform the world by means of art, 'Sachlichkeit' primarily signifies resignation." (1, p. 167) Thus, it is difficult to speak about the New Objectivity as a movement, because its representatives abandoned the former attempt to make the society better with their works and, on the contrary, chose the path of serving the society. Although Wieland Schmied claims, that "[the goal of the Neue Sachlichkeit] begins with the banal everyday objects which surround us, but it aims at a reinterpretation of the world" (2, p.15), for me Hermand's argumentation sounds more reasonable: "'Sachlichkeit' is the order of the day - that is to say, sobriety, realism and good living, and with all the coldness of that stark status quo mentality which for ever lies at the heart of this sort of compromise with the grim reality." (1, p. 168)
The new artist would be someone who was able not only to design a whole book by himself (1), or possessed a number of technical skills (this concept still can be compared to the Constructivist view of an artist as a Constructor), but could also manage variable business matters. Especially in the field of the journalism photography and advertising, the concurrence emerged as a new factor, since "[e]ven the painters and poets suddenly wanted to become factual reporters, newspaper correspondents or editors, each seeking merely to express the 'pulse of the times' beyond all notion of art as something having an aura." (1, p. 168) Nevertheless, it would be an exaggeration to see in the New Objectivity only "the attempt to maintain a system based on ownership, power, and control of mass consciousness." (3, p. 67) On one hand, there was Gustav Hartlaub, who wrote in 1928: "All art is advertising," and claimed that the art of today had no other goal except "to be neither more nor less than art for the moment", to reflect the change in "the mood of the times." On the other hand, there were George Grozs, John Heartfield and Wieland Herzfelde, who, not conventionally for the New Objectivists, wrote a critical essay "Art is in Danger", and mentioned two possibilities for a contemporary artist in it: Either to concentrate on technology, or on the "service of the class war." Hermand made an interesting observation: The Neue Sachlichkeit was somehow politically confused, it was inspired with the Soviet Communism and with the American Fordism at the same time. Even John Heartfield's pseudonym showed his sympathy to America, but it did not disturb Heartfield to work together and even to write artistic programs with George Grozs, a Communist. Hermand insisted, that the ideological contradiction could co-exist in the frame of the Neue Sachlichkeit, because it "remained a hybrid both politically and culturally. Because of its paradoxical qualities, it clearly demonstrates the contradictions inevitable in a purely commercial democratization." (3, p. 64)
I think, the artists of the New Objectivity, especially those in the advertising art and the photographers, were driven, together with the rest of the society, by forces of booming mass-media; therefore it is not quite correct to blame them as "profoundly undemocratic" (3, p. 67), on the basis of the sole fact that Nazis found it possible to use that art in their propaganda. It is clear that Hitler employed the same forces that gave the New Objectivity its specific form. But to say that the objective photography could be labeled «pro-fascist» would be similar to saying that the invention of television was an attack upon democracy. Adorno claims in the Kulturkritik that one can write no more poetry in German after Auschwitz; in 1949 Paul Celan writes a poem entitled the Todesfuge about being in Auschwitz. The arts march hand in hand with the society; they cannot make politics neither better nor worse.

The New Typography and New Advertising

Wieland Schmied names several characteristics of the Neue Sachlichkeit in paintings; the most important of them are "concentration on everyday things, [...] betraying no aversion from what is 'ugly'", "isolation of the object from any contextual relationship", "static pictorial structure, often suggesting a positively airless, glassy space", and "manifest construction of a picture out of heterogeneous details which form no organic whole". Many of them can be applied to the New Photography as well: The concentration on everyday things is valid both for Hans Mertens' still lives and for Moholy-Nagy's photographs and photograms; the isolation of the object can be illustrated with the micro-photographs by Renger-Patzsch; Moholy's photograph of the Funkturm in Berlin shows it from an unusual viewpoint, the spectator finds himself hovering in the air and looking down the tower, so that he sees only a fragment of it, not the organic whole, and the percepted image is distorted. As a counterpart for the 'bird's eye views' Moholy uses the 'turtle's eye views' which create no less disturbing impressions.
Herbert Molderings respond to the Renger-Patzsch's book of photographs under the original title of "Die Dinge" (by the way, Dinge is a synonym for Sachen) with the following: "its purpose was to recapture an aesthetic experience of the everyday surroundings, based on the recognition of a single formal principle common to natural and man-made objects." (4, p. 91) For Ute Eskildsen, his visions are "almost metaphysical", "an extension of our vision and understanding because with its help we are able to perceive aspects of the natural world which are inaccessible to the naked eye." (5, p. 103) The same new vision, that re-creates the world on the picture and teaches us to appreciate the way things (Sachen) are structured and arranged in the natureor in our everyday life, Wieland Schmied finds in the paintings by Räderscheidt, Hoerle, Völker, Nerlinger, Viegener, Kanoldt, Mertens. It is interesting, that the new photographers seem to have had the common aims and topics with those of the painters, but, as Renger-Patzsch puts it, "with the means peculiar to photography and without borrowing from art". Until then, the photography was a 'salon fine art.'
Among the Neue Sachlichkeit photography Eskildsen considers the photojournalism, as represented in a number of magazines (such as Köllnische Illustrierte, Weltspiegel etc.) The new technique invented by these journalists was to portray the motif in motion, not a stationery one, as it was usual for studio photographs. "The 'New Photographer' had to have a nose for the unusual since novelty was what was demanded in the bourgeois press: 'behind the scenes' items - [...] 'Ladies only', photographs taken secretly in court - are some typical examples." (5, p. 108)
In the advertising, "the Neue Sachlichkeit photography drew attention to the medium itself by discovering unfamiliar aspects in familiar objects". (5, p. 106) The 'new vision' proved to be extremely profitable: Even a photograph of a fork, which was not meant to be a commercial, could be successfully used as such. Maud Lavin examined the work of the new advertising designers, der neuen werbegestalter, and stated that "[t]hey were negotiating meaning and representation within several major areas: capitalist advertising, mass communication and, for some, leftist activism." (6, p.41) This spectrum of application shows that the Neue Sachlichkeit was directly connected with the development of mass media and (depending on the latter) mass culture. The techniques of the Neue Sachlichkeit proved to be virtual in the areas where the desired effect was the widest penetration into and perception by the audience: in commercials and propaganda.


In the Neue Sachlichkeit the art movements of the Weimar Republic seem to have found a logical conclusion: In a peculiar way, the Neue Sachlichkeit summarizes the Bauhaus aspiration to the applied art, the Expressionists' woodcut experiments toward the mass production, the Constructivists' fascination with the structure, the Dadaist obsession with the machine. The art, once elitist and far from being socially engaged, became an instument of the society, its merchandizer (advertising) and merchadize (such as the Illustrierten). Wieland Schmied wrote: "Expressionism had reached for the stars: artists now wanted to feel the firm ground under their feet." (2, p. 7) Maud Lavin cites an advertisement for Eukotol Skin Cream in Münchener Illustrierte Presse, no. 5, 31 January 1932, made by an unknown designer. The advertisement demonstrates two worlds, the macrocosm and the microcosm (the footnotes give the explanations of the both foreign words), and a woman between them. The advertising text tells that the skin separates the macro- from the microcosm. The border between stars and a human is Eukotol, the commodity, the object of artist's and consumer's interest.

The works cited

  1. Hermand, Jost. "Unity within diversity? The history of the concept 'Neue Sachlichkeit'", trans. Peter and Margaret Lincoln. Culture and Society in the Weimar Republic, ed. Keith Bullivant. Manchester: Manchester University Press; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.
  2. Schmied, Wieland. Neue Sachlichkeit and the German Realism of the Twenties, trans. David Britt and Frank Whitford. Neue Sachlichkeit und magischer Realismus in Deutschland. 1918-1933, Hannover: Fackelträger-Verlag, 1969.
  3. Hermand, Jost. "Neue Sachlichkeit: Ideology, Lifestyle, or Artistic Movement?" trans. Stephen Brockmann. Dancing on the Volcano: Essays on the Culture of the Weimar Republic, ed. Thomas W. Kniesche and Stephen Brockmann. Columbia: Camden House, 1994.
  4. Molderings, Herbert. "Urbanism and Technological Utopianism Thoughts on the Photography of Neue Sachlichkeit and Bauhaus". Germany: The New Photography 1927-1933, ed. David Mellor, London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978.
  5. Eskildsen, Ute. "Photography and the Neue Sachlichkeit Movement." Germany: The New Photography 1927-1933, ed. David Mellor, London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978.
  6. Lavin, Maud. "Photomontage, Mass Culture, and Modernity." Montage and modern life, 1919-1942, ed. Matthew Teitelbaum, Cambridge: MIT Press; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1992.

1. Jan Tschihold in Something about Book Design, 1932, wrote: "Then the choice of type, line spacing, the placement of type-areas, the designation of sections of the book, the titling, the binding design, and if possible, the design of the dust jacket must be entrusted to a single person, if a unity is to be produced."