What Art Can Teach Us About the Weimar Republic

The Match Seller by Otto Dix
The Weimar Republic is hands down one of my favourite periods of history, which makes sense since I researched the period for my undergraduate dissertation. One of my favourite things about the Weimar Republic is the culture that it produced, particularly in terms of art. There was an increased freedom of expression during this era including a freedom to criticise society. The art was produced during this period often gave a broad view of Weimar culture as a whole and the new modern features it developed.

End of Censorship
The strict cultural censorship implemented under Kaiser Wilhelm had been lifted and Article 118 of the Weimar Constitution explicitly stated,

"Every German has the right, within the limits of the general laws, to express his opinion freely by

word, in writing, in print, in picture form, or in any other way. [ . . . ]

Censorship is forbidden. [ . . . ]" - The Constitution of the German Empire 1919 (via GHI)

Metropolis by Otto Dix
Sex, jazz and dancing
 After years of censorship and limited self expression, people could express themselves how they wanted. As a result, this period saw a move from traditional culture (music, film, fashion etc.) and move towards the experimental and modern. Jazz became popular as did the Charleston. Women were wearing more revealing 'flapper' outfits and sexuality was no longer completely taboo.

All of this is depicted in the central panel of Otto Dix's Metropolis. It shows a woman, wearing a new and more modern style of dress, dancing the Charleston whilst jazz is playing. Jazz music is represented by the African American drummer as this style of music originated in African American culture in New Orleans. The women in the right hand panel are prostitutes, symbolising increased openness regarding sexuality and nudity.
Dr Benn's Nachtcafé by George Grosz
Sex and nudity were prominent in both Weimar society and its art. In Weimar: A Cultural History Walter Laqueur states that sex and nudity had to be seen and done in the new republic as demonstrated by the growth of nude entertainment. George Grosz depicts this in Dr Benn's NachtcafĂ© which shows nude women entertaining men in a bar. Whilst some revelled in their new found freedom, some individuals saw it as modernity corrupting society.

Neue Sachlichkeit

The lack of of censorship also meant that artists could freely criticise society and the Republic. Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) art provided a harsh view of reality. It often focused on the war and the new culture that was emerging in the post war world. Neue Sachlichkeit art often criticised the new cultural freedoms seeing things such as jazz and sexuality as symptoms of a decaying society.

Many of these artists were war veterans who painted about how they were being treated in the post war world. Veterans had been assured they would be rewarded for their service only to return home unable to find employment and left begging on the streets. Otto Dix's paintings were in this theme as seen in Metropolis. The painting shows limbless veterans begging in the streets whilst the rest of society revels in decadence and ignores those who fought in the war. It can also be seen in The Match Seller which shows a veteran who had lost their legs during the war, trying to sell matches on the streets whilst people walk on by and a dog urinates on him. This really sums up the feeling of many veterans during this time. Whilst the bourgeoisie enjoy the modern entertainments, many who had fought in the war felt they had been cast aside.

Cultural Bolshevism & The Nazis

Now this is where it gets a bit complicated. Whilst many right wing individuals, including Hitler, shared the same views as Neue Sachlichkeit artists that society had been corrupted by decadence, this did not mean that the right approved of art in the New Objectivity style. This is best demonstrated by the fact that most Neue Sachlichkeit paintings were banned during Nazi rule for glorifying promiscuity and were featured in the Exhibition of Degenerate Art in 1937. Many right wing individuals believed that art should have a positive message rather than focusing on portraying the corruption of society.
Joseph Goebbels at the Exhibition of Degenerate Art 1937
The Nazis declared the works of individuals such as Grosz and Dix as 'Art Bolshevism' and kulturbolschevismus (cultural Bolshevism) since the artists were more left leaning.  So even though they agreed on the fact that society had been corrupted, the Nazis actually condemned artists that held those views simply because of the style of their art and even believed New Objectivity artists to be contributing to the corruption.

Evidently, the Weimar Republic allowed individuals to express themselves freely, even if that meant using art to condemn modern society for being too decadent. Features that were characteristic of modern society in the Republic were jazz, news styles of dance, nudity and a more open expression of sexuality. This was considered as the source of the decay of German society by many people, but particularly veterans of the First World War and those who favoured right wing politics. Neue Sachlichkeit art consistently demonstrated these themes of conflict between two sections of society, showing what an uncertain and changing time the Weimar Republic was.


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