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Visual Essay: Free Expression in the Weimar Republic

Explore Weimar-era fine art, film, and ballet with this collection of images. Analyze the experimental styles and social commentary of German art in the 1920s.  
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English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights

The work of visual artists, filmmakers, designers, musicians, architects, and other artists provides an important window into the creativity and experimentation as well as the anxiety and fear that characterized German society in the years of the Weimar Republic. The gallery of images and the introduction below explore the variety and vibrancy of art in Germany at this time and the impact of free expression in Weimar society. 

Free Expression in the Weimar Republic

Explore Weimar Germany's vibrant art scene with this sample of paintings, film, and performance from the Weimar era.

 

The Triadic Ballet, 1926

The Triadic Ballet was created by Oskar Schlemmer, a painter, sculptor, designer, and choreographer who taught at the Bauhaus art school in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Schlemmer’s ballet represented the Bauhaus style–uncluttered, modern, and geometric.

Credit:
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Karl Grill, [Spiral Costume, from the Triadic Ballet], 1926, Gelatin silver print, Image: 22.5 × 16.2 cm (8 7/8 × 6 3/8 in.)

Film poster for Metropolis, 1927

Metropolis is a silent film by Fritz Lang known for its futuristic style and special effects. One of the first science fiction feature films, it is set in a dystopian German city marked by an enormous gulf between the wealthy and the poor.

Credit:
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Fritz Mackensen, Der Saeugling (The Baby), 1892

Mackensen’s work represents a more traditional style of art that many Germans were familiar with before World War I. This painting was featured in the 1937 Great German Art Exhibition in Munich sponsored by the Nazis.

Credit:
Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Hannah Höch, The Kitchen Knife, 1919

 

Höch’s work consists primarily of collages, often made from photographs. Höch was part of the Dada movement, which formed in part as a reaction to the death and destruction from World War I. Dada artists prized irrationality and considered their work “anti-art.”

Credit:
bpk, Berlin / Staatliche Museen / Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY

Albert Birkle, Nächtliche Strasse (Street at Night), 1921

Birkle’s work represents the New Objectivity movement that encompassed much of the art produced in the Weimar Republic. Artists like Birkle challenged their viewers to see the world as it really was, rather than as they would like it to be.

Credit:
VG Bild-Kunst / Art Resource, NY

Otto Dix, Verwundeter (Wounded Soldier), 1924

 

Dix was a New Objectivist artist known for the brutal realism of his paintings. He was wounded several times by Germans soldier on the Western Front during World War I. He based his series entitled Der Krieg (The War) on these experiences.

Credit:
bpk, Berlin / Staatliche Museen / Volker-H. Schneider / Art Resource, NY

Otto Dix, Gross Stadt (Metropolis), 1928

In addition to his depictions of World War I, Otto Dix was also known for his ruthless criticism of German society during the Weimar years.

Credit:
akg-images

George Grosz, Der Agitator (The Agitator), 1928

 

Grosz is one of the most important artists associated with the New Objectivity movement. His paintings and sketches often offered critical judgments of German society during the Weimar Republic.

Credit:
Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Marlene Dietrich in Blue Angel, 1930

Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, was Germany’s first full-length talkie, a motion picture with sound as opposed to a silent film. The film follows the story of college professor who is undone by his attraction to Lola-Lola, a cabaret dancer played by German-American Marlene Dietrich. The film made Dietrich an international film star, and she continued her acting career in the United States.

Credit:
MARKA / Alamy

Introduction to the Visual Essay

Weimar Germany was a center of artistic innovation, great creativity, and considerable experimentation. Article 114 of the Weimar Constitution gave every German “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.” In film, the visual arts, architecture, craft, theater, and music, Germans were at the forefront of the most exciting developments in modern art in the 1920s and early 1930s. The unprecedented freedom and widespread latitude for varieties of cultural expression led to an explosion of artistic production. 

A mood of innovation and creativity infused Weimar art, but so did a pervasive feeling of anxiety and fear. In this way, the works in this visual essay reflect the same tensions that shaped the Weimar period as a whole. Some artists freely tested the boundaries of social norms. They experimented with ideas about gender and critiqued life in the modern city. The aftermath of World War I, an uncertain economy, and a violent, tumultuous political climate also influenced Weimar art, and artists offered unsparing, often disturbing portrayals of German life. Artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix challenged viewers to see their world as it really was, not as they would like it to be—a type of art they called the New Objectivity. 

Weimar art was often a form of social criticism. When they painted unflattering portrayals of political leaders and economic elites or created images that pushed the boundaries of polite society, artists sometimes found themselves targeted by those in authority. Conservative and radical right-wing critics decried the new works of art as decadent and immoral. They denounced Weimar Germany as a new Sodom and Gomorrah and attacked American influences, such as jazz music, as contributors to the decay of their society. In 1924, a German judge considered Grosz’s work so disturbing that he found the artist guilty of “attacks on public morality.” It was not the first time Grosz and other artists were brought to court for criticizing Germany, and it would not be the last. 

How could Grosz and other Germans be tried and punished if they had a constitutional right to freedom of expression? The answer lies in the phrase “within the limits of the general laws.” Old laws that denied such freedom remained on the books.

The art of this period has so influenced our contemporary world that when we see these images today, it can be difficult to understand why many Germans of the 1920s found them strange, unnerving, even offensive. We can better appreciate the unsettling impact of Weimar artists like Grosz, Dix, and filmmaker Fritz Lang if we compare their work to the traditional portraits and landscapes that were familiar to most Germans at the time. These more old-fashioned works continued to be produced by other artists throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and they were embraced by the Nazi leadership as “true German art.” Meanwhile, works of modern art from the Weimar era were exhibited only as “degenerate” art (see reading, Art and Politics in Chapter 6).

Connection Questions

  1. Fritz Mackensen’s 1892 painting Der Saeugling (The Baby) is one example of the more traditional art that many Germans were familiar with before World War I. Compare and contrast this painting with the more modern Weimar-era works of art that follow in this visual essay. What differences do you notice? What might those differences reveal about tensions present within German society during the Weimar Republic?
  2. What can we learn about history from artwork? How do the works of art here connect to what you have already learned about the Weimar era in Germany? How do they extend your knowledge of this era? How do they challenge your thinking about Weimar Germany?
  3. Is freedom of expression important to a democracy? Under what conditions, if any, should such freedom be restricted?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "Visual Essay: Free Expression in the Weimar Republic," last updated May 12, 2020.

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