Despite its upheaval, Weimar Germany was at the forefront of new styles and movements in art and design. Innovations in Weimar art were shaped in part by the social and economic conditions in post-war Germany. The impact of World War I, the collapse of the monarchy and the end of authoritarian government all impacted on Germany’s artistic community. German artists questioned the traditional values and styles of the 19th century, particularly the old Prussian styles that emphasised strength, authority and militarism. They began to abandon traditional forms and instead experimented with new styles and techniques. In doing so they borrowed from other artistic movements, such as social realism, the pro-socialist artistic movement that emerged in Soviet Russia. But Weimar artists also incorporated their own ideas that reflected the conditions and attitudes of the time. This artistic revolution did not please everyone. The traditionalists and the reactionaries hated Weimar art; they thought it decadent, frivolous and pointless. When the government gave way to Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, many aspects of Weimar art came under direct attack from the new regime.
The lingering effects of World War I had an obvious impact on Weimar era art. The work of Otto Dix is particularly worthy of attention. A former soldier who served almost the entire duration of the war, Dix was haunted by his wartime experiences, to the point of mental breakdown. He moved to Dresden, one of Germany’s leading artistic cities, where he was influenced by the expressionists, the Dada movement and other modernist schools. In the early 1920s, Dix began work on a series of paintings depicting the war. He utilised dark tones and grotesque detail, showing injured soldiers, decomposing bodies and skeletons to depict the horrors of mechanised warfare. Probably the best known of these pieces is The Trench (1923), shown on this page. Dix also represented the home front of Weimar, painting depictions of crippled war veterans and despairing civilians on the streets of Berlin. The confronting themes and monstrous detail in Dix’s work created such a stir that many galleries blacklisted him. The Nazis later deemed Otto Dix a ‘degenerate artist’ and ordered him to paint landscapes; many of his older pieces were burned.
Though not native to Germany, the Dada art movement was popular there in the early 1920s. Dadaism emerged in Switzerland during the war, manifesting in painting, graphic design, photography, literature and poetry. Dada artists were an anarchistic bunch, unlike any established artistic movement. They despised war, rejected tradition and discarded capitalist middle-class values. Instead, they sought to create an ‘anything goes’ artistic movement that celebrated chaos and disorder. Some Dada artists spoke about their wish to offend art lovers and destroy perceptions about what art actually is. Dadaist creations had no logical form or rules: they were intended to shock or confuse. Dada artists made extensive use of collage and montage, though their composition rarely made much if any sense. George Grosz and Hannah Hoch were at the forefront of a small but prolific Dada clique based in Berlin. Most German artists, however, were too politically motivated to be swept up by Dadaism; they preferred not to divorce themselves from the political and social events of the Weimar period. Even Hannah Hoch’s collage Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, though disjointed and random, still has political overtones.
The most influential artistic movement of the period was Bauhaus. Pioneered by the architect Walter Gropius, Bauhaus was the name of an art school located in the city of Weimar. The name was an inversion of hausbau (‘house design’), a clue that Gropius wanted to revolutionise the way houses and their contents were imagined. The Bauhaus school operated from 1919 to 1933, when it was closed down by the Nazis. During this time it trained hundreds of artists, architects, sculptors and graphic designers. The school’s influence was visible in many aspects of German design: from the studio arts to architecture; the design of interior spaces, domestic objects and appliances; even simple objects like fonts and symbols. One of the main aims of Bauhaus was to reconcile artistic style with industrial mass production. Bauhaus artists wanted not just to experiment with new styles, shapes and forms, but to see them produced in large quantities for consumers. Most Bauhaus pieces were not intended to be singular pieces of art for galleries and museums – they were functional items to be used by ordinary people who could also admire their aesthetic qualities. Bauhaus was inherently modernist because it accepted and sought to work with new industries, technology and mechanisation.
One of the first noticeable innovations of Bauhaus was in graphic design. Bauhaus designers developed bold new fonts that conveyed messages with both style and simplicity. They abandoned stylistic elements they considered unnecessary, such as serifs and the use of upper- and lower-case. Bauhaus fonts used simple shapes but were bold, eye-catching and stylish, yet simple enough to read quickly. Bauhaus designers also experimented with colour, developing theories on where and when colour should be used, and in what combinations. By the mid-1920s the Bauhaus movement was producing furniture designs that embraced simple but functional forms. Bauhaus furniture made extensive use of tubular steel and synthetic materials, instead of traditional materials like timber, leather and fabric. This meant it could be mass produced at lower cost, since there was little upholstery or handcrafting required. Bauhaus furniture was intended to look minimalist and streamlined while being comfortable and ergonomically sound. One of the most famous items of furniture associated with the Bauhaus was the ‘cantilever chair’, an S-shaped design with no back legs; it is still commonly used in office and outdoor furniture.
1. Germany’s relaxed political system, as well as its social and economic turmoil, influenced Weimar artists.
2. These artists drew on international styles and movements while embracing their own ideas and innovations.
3. Several painters, like Otto Dix, were haunted by World War I and used strong anti-war themes and imagery.
4. Others were swept up in Dadaism, a movement that rejected old practices and celebrated anarchy and chaos.
5. The Bauhaus school sought to reconcile artistic style with industrial mass production and consumerism.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Weimar art”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/weimar-art/.