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."
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. 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', 'New Sobriety,' 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".
In particular, Crockett argues 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 dance, 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 inner turmoil (angst), 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.
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. Expressionism, to Dadaists, expressed all of the angst and anxieties of society, but was helpless to do anything about it.
Bertolt 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, Verists and classicists
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 New Objectivity comprised two tendencies which Hartlaub characterized in terms of a left and right wing: on the left were the verists, who "tear the objective form of the world of contemporary facts and represent current experience in its tempo and fevered temperature;" and on the right the classicists, who "search more for the object of timeless ability to embody the external laws of existence in the artistic sphere."
The verists' vehement form of realism emphasized the ugly and sordid. Their art was raw, provocative, and harshly satirical. George Grosz and Otto Dix are considered the most important of the verists. The verists developed Dada's abandonment of any pictoral rules or artistic language into 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. This later developed into portraits and scenes by artists such as Grosz, 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 verists, 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. Often, psychological elements were introduced in his work, which suggested an underlying unconscious reality.
Max Beckmann, who is sometimes called an expressionist although he never considered himself part of any movement, was considered by Hartlaub to be a verist and the most important artist of Neue Sachlichkeit.
Compared to the verists, the classicists more clearly exemplify the "return to order" that arose in the arts throughout Europe. The classicists included Georg Schrimpf, Alexander Kanoldt, Carlo Mense, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, and Wilhelm Heise. The sources of their art include 19th-century art, the Italian metaphysical painters, the artists of Novecento Italiano, and Henri Rousseau.
The classicists are best understood by Franz Roh's term Magic Realism, though Roh originally intended "magical realism" to be synonymous with the Neue 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.” 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.