Why The Art of Germany Between the Wars Deserves to be Remembered

The creative potency of a fleeting era

Christopher P Jones
5 min readApr 24, 2023

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Detail of ‘Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden’ (1927) by Otto Dix. Oil and tempera on wood. 89 × 121 cm. Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France. Image source WikiArt

1920s Germany was a fertile moment in European culture. It was one made all the more fleeting by the circumstances that followed it.

As the years progressed, culminating in the economic depression of 1929, the Weimar Republic — as the era came to be known — began to suffer increasing political division. The rise of the Nazi party coincided with a fragmentation of social expectations and the eventual rise of fascism.

Perhaps paradoxically this was an enormously creative and liberalised time, no more so than in the country’s capital Berlin. It was a city of bright lights and bustling streets, of risqué pleasure spots and unorthodox nightlife. Clubs transformed into cabaret theatres and filmmakers produced some of the most revolutionary films in history. Artists were no less innovative, producing new modes of painting and early forms of performance art.

Some of the best paintings from the era came from the New Objectivity movement (known as Neue Sachlichkeit), whose hard-edged, provocative and often satirical images sought to capture the unrest and undermine the hypocrisy of society’s elite.

More broadly, New Objectivity characterised a manner of painting that was realist in style and ostensibly detached from personal expression. Prior to the First World War, painting had been moving almost magnetically in the direction of surreal expressionism and abstraction. But New Objectivity artists —such as Otto Dix, Alexander Kanoldt, George Grosz and Christian Schad — pushed in the opposite direction.

Heightened Strangeness

Europe after the First World War was a place of devastation. This was no more true than in Germany, a country that emerged from the trenches not only humiliated by defeat but also facing a massive reparations debt exacted by the victorious nations and detailed in the Treaty of Versailles. Economic crises haunted the first years after the war, with devastating hyperinflation reaching a peak in 1923.

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