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New Objectivity

The room in which he finds himself is not clearly defined and transforms into the unknown, into a kind of sky. Storm clouds threaten in the top left of the picture where the cigarette points to a planet, circled in red. Does Mehring suspect an impending disaster?

— Mathias Eberle

By the mid 1920s, a new style emerged that came to be known as Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. This term took its name from an exhibition organised in 1925 by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim. Hartlaub defined the features of this new tendency as the sharpening of the artist’s gaze, a sober concentration on the external appearance of the subject and a sense of emotional detachment. He identified two different variations of this style which he labelled as ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’. George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix were referred to as the ‘left-wing’ artists, or Verists, because they were committed to the truthful representation of their subjects. The ‘right-wing’ was a group of painters based in Munich including Alexander Kanoldt, Carlo Mense, Georg Schrimpf and Heinrich Maria Davringhausen.

Many artists felt the need to return to traditional modes of representation after experiencing the atrocities of World War I and the harsh conditions of life in postwar Germany. Portraiture became a major vehicle of expression for this group of artists, with its emphasis on the realistic representation of the human figure. Artists mostly chose their own models rather than seeking out commissioned portraits. The purpose of these portraits was to create a picture of the era by portraying people who helped to shape Weimar culture.

The urban resident, male or female, remained the most prominent figure, the most important model, and it was not until Hitler and Stalin came to power that the farmer became a notable subject in painting again. In the metropolis of the 1920s, artists painted portraits of colleagues, secretaries, doctors, photographers and fashionable women, who all stood or sat as models as well as businessmen, actors, dancers and writers. The milieu in which these artists mingled were the middle-class circles – they were not interested in suburban or rural idylls, or in the lives of the upper classes.

— Mathias Eberle

Focus work

George Grosz (1893–1959)
Portrait of Walter Mehring 1926

Year 7–12 Visual Arts: issues for consideration

  • Analyse this artwork by George Grosz. What is your initial response and how does it make you feel? Look carefully at the composition and arrangement of form. How does the background enhance the narrative in the painting? Research George Grosz and Walter Mehring and form an opinion about whether the artwork is a true portrayal of the artist and the sitter.
  • New Objectivity artists sort to champion the objective portrayal of reality. What does this mean? Specifically consider the structural and historical aspects of this art making approach. Have New Objectivity artists been successful in their aim?
  • How are Weimar artists personally affected by the experiences that surround them? Build a case study on this topic and specifically discuss New Objectivity artists and their response to the world around them. Why did they choose this particular subject matter and artistic style? Compare with other artists in the exhibition.
  • Identify the left wing and right wing artists of this art style. Distinguish the differences and choose an artist to appropriate. Create a portrait painting of someone significant in your life and curate a class exhibition including extended labels and catalogue text. Can the audience recognise the variations of this style?

George Grosz (1893–1959)
Portrait of Walter Mehring 1926
oil on canvas, 110 × 78 cm
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
Photo: © Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp © Lukas-Art in Flanders vzw
© George Grosz/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney