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ESSAYS

John Heartfield

ART AND POLITICS IN WEIMAR GERMANY

The period between the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918 and Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power in January 1933 was one of great creative ferment in Germany. Expressionsim, which dominated the German avant garde before World War I, survived into the early 1920s. The Dada movement, founded in 1916 by a group of expatriot artists disgusted with the war effort, brought its free-form iconoclasm to bear on the postwar German political situation. Dire social and ecomomic circumstances seemed to demand a more pragmatic and realistic aesthetic, and by 1925 the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) was widely hailed as the principal mode of the decade. However, German artists in the 1920s were united less by a single style than by their overriding concern with humanitarian themes: this was one of the few phases of modern art that valued content above form. Today, when contemporary artistis are again turning to overtly political subjects, a look back at Weimar Germany offers a useful object lesson about the capabilities and limitations of socially motivated art.

 

Prior to 1914, Expressionism was essentially apolitical. Its partisans considered themselves aesthetic revolutionaries but harbored no allegiance to a broader social revolution, beyond a vague disdain for the Philistine bourgeoisie. The Expressionists’ attempt to attain spiritual enlightenment through art was largely inner-directed. They banded together in small factions to protect their creative autonomy against the diluting impact of an often hostile majority, rather than out of any communal impulse. World War I, in which many artists fought and not a few died, accustomed its participants to group activity and created a body of shared experience. The patriotic fervor rampant in the early months of the war faded as battlefield horrors were compounded by the shocking incompetance and corruption of the military establishment. The war in effect taught artists to collaborate and encouraged them to question authority.

 

In the heady days following the 1918 revolution, it was easy for the Expressionists to imagine that the new age they had courted was at last dawning, and to turn their formerly internal quest outward. Many now tacitly assumed that there was, after all, a connection between radical art and radical politics, and that their inchoate hatred of the bourgeoisie had legitimate class roots. Identifying themselves with the proletariat and taking their cue from the recently founded Russian socialist state, artists felt a duty to offer guidance and inspiration to the masses. Many participated in the flurry of activity preceding the first general elections, scheduled for January 1919, which officially established the new republic’s Constituent Assembly in the town of Weimar. Three major artists’ coalitions--the Novembergruppe (November Group) and Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Worker’s Council for Art) in Berlin, and the Dresdener Sezession--Gruppe 19 in Dresden--were formed during this period with the purpose of shaping future cultural policy.

 

The myriad posters that were plastered all over Germany in the weeks preceding the 1919 elections vividly illustrate the volatile forces that were vying for command of the country. Controlled by moderate socialists, the provisional government had to contend not only with paranoid anti-Bolshevik hectoring from the right, but also with pressure from the more radical communists in their midst, who hoped to establish a soviet system similar to that of their Russian comrades. The posters commissioned by the Werbedienst (Publicity Office) of the interim regime--designed by Novembergruppe artists such as Heinz Fuchs, Cesar Klein, Max Pechstein and Georg Tappert--were principally intended to restore order: to get out the vote and to put an end to the strikes and armed skirmishes that were to become a recurring feature of the Weimar era.

 

The faith which artists had placed in the infant republic soon proved to be hopelessly idealistic, as did their goal of rousing the masses through revolutionary art. The masses did not, as it turned out, understand the avant-garde posters: they found them comical or worse still, personally insulting. Despite the artists’ anti-bourgeois posturing, the proletariat readily recognized them as members of an alien cultural elite. Those who hoped that the new regime would provide more artistic freedom than its predecessor were soon disappointed, and artists such as George Grosz were repeatedly dragged into court for various offenses against propriety. Establishing a pattern that was to persist and intensify in years to come, the ruling SPD (Social Democratic Party) was noticeably more hospitable to the entrenched military and industrial establishment than to the fellow socialists in the KPD (Communist Party). Both before and after the 1919 elections, uprisings by the left were brutally suppressed by the Freicorps (Free Corps), a right-wing paramilitary organization supported by the governmen. A number of key leaders--most famously, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg--were murdered. Disillusioned, many artists retreated from organized political activity. The Arbeitsrat disbanded in 1921 and the Dredener Sezession in 1925. While the Novembergruppe lingered on until the 1930s, it had lost its political edge by 1922.

 

Far from offering a panacea for the world’s ills, the new Germany presented a compendium of its worst failings, which were dutifully catalogued by the nation’s many artists. As unemployment and inflation skyrocketed, the streets grew crowded with beggars and crippled war veterans, who served as inescapable reminders of society’s inequities. The war itself, as depicted by Otto Dix, was a metaphor for the moral and spiritual debasement of humankind. The parameters of personal interaction had seemingly been reduced to murder and rape (or most tellingly, a combination of the two), and prostitution became emblematic of an age which viewed everything as a commodity. The betrayal of the masses by the wealthy elite who profited from their suffering was a particular obsession of George Grosz, who was inspired by a modern-dress performance of Schiller’s classic play Die Räuber (The Robbers) to pen a pictorial discourse on capitalist corruption.

 

German artists in the 1920s were motivated by a combined desire for objective reportage and effective communication. The Neue Sachlichkeit, as much an attitude as a style, describes both the biting caricatures of Grosz and the sort of slick “magic realism” popular later inthe decade. Disdaining the capitalist marketplace traditionally served by exhibitions, artists sought to reach a wider audience through prints, broadsheets and illustrated journals.