The cold gaze
- Germany
in the 1920s

14.10.22 - 19.2.23

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome! A sweeping journey through the roaring and explosive 1920s in the Weimar Republic. Centre stage, the significant movement of "Neue Sachlichkeit" and its sober realism – ranging from the harsh and satirical to the razor-sharp, almost clinical. Sharing the limelight: the works of the groundbreaking photographer August Sander was presented as an exhibition within the exhibition.

The exhibition was organized in collaboration with Centre Pompidou, Paris and was supported by C. L. David Foundation and Collection.

About the August Sander exhibition.

Crises and turbulence, but also a period of wild and violent artistic innovation. After the First World War, German society during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) experienced years of deep poverty and political unrest, but also a short-lived flourishing of democracy and a strong culture of freedom. The period, which came to an abrupt end with the Nazi takeover in 1933, was characterized by both euphoric creation and a constant sense of impending dissolution. A “fragile” state that translated into a rich and varied cultural life.

Modern times

Louisiana’s large-scale exhibition took up the entire South Wing with just under 600 works by 90 artists, mixing both painting, drawing, photography, architecture, design, film, theater, literature and music. Here, thematic chapters focused on the significant artistic current of the time “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity).

In a society marked by great upheavals and opposing forces, the Neue Sachlichkeit artists sought to capture modern, everyday life and to portray the lives and actions of ordinary people in a realistic and sober way - cleansed of any sensitivity and often in a deliberately distorted way.

Crises and decadence

Urban life, modern, functionalist architecture, industrialization and technological advances are widespread motifs for the artists of the period, but also the vivacious entertainment life of the time with nightclubs, cabarets, sexual liberation, promiscuity and prostitution. At the same time, socially critical depictions of the harsh living conditions of the working class, the new role of women and the decadent lifestyle of the upper class are seen. These are all themes that the exhibition unfolded across the arts and with the help of extensive historical documentation material.

Timeline & introduction

An overview of the Neue Sachlichkeit years 1925-1933

When entering the exhibition it was possible to read a general introduction to the Weimar Republic as well as important events in German history during the Neue Sachlichkeit years 1925-1933. It is also possible to read and download the introduction and timeline below.

The exhibition was divided into seven thematic chapters – ranging from portraits and still life to transgressions – each unfolded across artistic forms of expression.

The seven chapters

PORTRAITS Germany’s defeat in World War I produced a national culture of shame and pre-war utopias suddenly became an embarrassment. Thus, the 1920s saw the emergence of a new social type who seeks to avoid feelings of humiliation by adopting a mask of cold indifference. This new behaviour dramatically changed the practice of portraiture. Where previously it focussed on the model’s psychological expression, it now concentrated solely on their exterior. New Objectivity artists portrayed their subjects not so much as personalities but rather as types defined by their social status and profession. Consequently, the portraits from this time appear  to be devoid of all feeling.

STILL LIFE The artists of the New Objectivity movement were particularly interested in still life. Inspired by the hyperrealistic fidelity of photography, painters seized upon the visual language of the camera, and an intense dialogue was established between the two mediums. The exotic nature of cacti and rubber plants were very popular in Germany during this time, and the artists were fascinated by these plants, which they perceived as abstract, geometric and architectural in nature. Painters and photographers captured standardised, mass-produced industrial goods in close-up compositions. Glass objects were afforded special attention because of their transparency, expressing the artist’s desire to represent the world without filters, truthfully and objectively.

RATIONALITY The post-war economic crisis and spectacular inflation was followed by a period of relative stability and growth, encouraged particularly by the Dawes Plan in 1924 – the American-led financial aid intiative. Germans began to develop a fascination for America and its social model including the rationalisation of labour and processes of efficiency, which were imported into German companies, leading to rapid industrialisation and the mechanisation of work. The painters and photographers of New Objectivity in turn celebrated the aesthetics of machines. Admiration of technology gained further impetus with the appearance of the radio, a new household appliance perceived by playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and his peers as a tool of potential emancipation. Architects and designers began to study the interior design of small-scale housing units in order to optimize available space and kitchen layouts were reconsidered to facilitate the housewife’s daily activities.

STANDARDISATION The exaltation of the individual that had characterised Expressionist aesthetics was replaced by an ideal of standardisation: singularities were erased in favour of models, prototypes, simple forms that could easily be reproduced. Rather than focusing on specific physical features, artists turned their attention towards social status and groups. In urban planning, housing shortages after World War I led to the construction of public housing estates. Launched in 1925, Das Neue Frankfurt (The New Frankfurt project) was a vast plan for the construction of standardised housing estates with simple, identical forms created from prefabricated modules. Standardmöbel, a company owned by architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), was responsible for designing simple, functional furniture, easy to reproduce on an industrial scale.

TRANSGRESSIONS In Germany, traditional gender roles were redefined after World War I. Women were now established on the labour market and obtained the right to vote in 1918. With a quasi-sociological eye, artists constructed a typology of the liberated Neue Frau (New Woman) with her short hair, shirts, cigarettes, ties and flat chest. In Berlin, as in the famous Eldorado cabaret, an important subculture developed amongst homosexuals and transgender people that the police generally tolerated. Among certain male artists, however, the breakdown of the boundaries of sex and sexuality generated a deep contempt that was reflected in works depicting fantasies of Lustmorde (sexual crimes).

THE DOWNSIDE Driven by the desire to represent the reverse side of triumphal capitalism, some artists of the New Objectivity movement focussed on the ‘invisible people’ for whom technological progress had led to exclusion and loss. Although the artists claimed to represent the community objectively, they refused to be politically neutral, and most of them were involved with the Communist party.
The artists were inspired by documentarists and their investigation of social groups. They used the reporter’s analytical, objective methods and distant approach and depicted the oppressive environment of industrial architecture among others.

THEATRE, MUSIC AND LITERATURE The concept of Gebrauch (utility) appeared in German theatre, music and literature during the 1920s. It promoted the emergence of didactic works conceived for a wide audience. Intended to be socially useful, works were rooted in the present day and intended to be immediately comprehensible. New musical styles imported from the United States now appeared in Germany and became very popular, especially jazz and dance music such as the foxtrot. Using themes from their own era, composers were inspired to create a specific new musical genre: the Zeitoper (opera of the times). Modern technology and machines, such as trains, cars and telephones began to appear in the set design of these productions. Playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and director Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) developed what they called Epic Theatre. Theatre for them was descriptive and demonstrative; the public could become critical observers, rather than being lost in the narrative.