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Art & artists

Art and life in Weimar Germany

— July 2011

Article read level: Art lover

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Cover of The Weimar Years by John WIllett

The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short

John WIllett

This book begins and ends with images of the German Field Marshall von Hindenburg, one of the iconic figures of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919–33). The first photograph shows him dressed in full uniform with medals hanging from his neck, sitting at his desk, concentrating over work. The second shows him seated between Hitler and Goering. In this image, Hindenburg is clearly an old man and although he had just helped Hitler to the chancellorship, the Field Marshall looks broken. Seated between the two Nazis he is surrounded and appears helpless. Whether taken as a symbol of Wilhelmine or Weimar Germany, he is clearly overcome, like all the values associated with both these bygone eras.

There was a close relationship between art and politics during the Weimar period. The author gives a crystal clear outline of the social and political conditions in which artistic production took place and charts the changes that occurred as Germany lurched through its first democratic experiment. The book is laid out as photo-essay or exhibition in book form, with minimal text accompanying the images. The images therefore tell the story about innovation, artistic and societal tensions, and crisis. This environment affected not only traditional media such as painting but also new media such as advertising and film. It is the many sides of Weimar culture that make the art it produced so fascinating, still, today. The book charts its development from the euphoria and optimism of 1919, with its creative explosion, to the disenchantment of the mid-1920s, and on, to the ominous beginnings of the Third Reich.

In the immediate post-war years art engaged in the frank utopian vision of Expressionism but also addressed the horrors of war, in work by Georg Grosz and Käthe Kollwitz. The artistic paradoxes mirrored the political ones as Germans struggled to come to terms with the First World War, the Versailles peace, and Freikorps violence in the streets. The author sees 1921–3 as a ‘turning point’ in Weimar history and culture. This period witnessed the height of inflation and post-war deprivations. In the arts, the discovery of light and transparency as elements complemented the influence of De Stijl and Cubism on German design.

From 1924–8 Germany stabilized. This period ushered in a traditional resurgence, on the one hand, and the functional Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’) movement on the other. But Weimar culture was fragmented in nature. Because Germany unified so late (1871), it still had many strong local cultural centres, primarily in the cities. This decentralization meant that Weimar innovations were quickly and broadly disseminated throughout the country rather than concentrated in Berlin. Germany was unique when compared with France, whose cultural centre was Paris, or England, centred on London.

Finally, there is a short chapter on the economic collapse and the rise of the Nazis. Here, the images are strong but the art historical rationale is a bit weak. Thames and Hudson designed the volume to reflect some of the graphic innovation typical during the Weimar era by using primary colours, sans serif type, banners, and so on. The one unfortunate choice was to colour originals in order to match the graphics. Willett’s book is a very readable, informative visual introduction to the richness and complexities of Weimar-era German culture. It offers a good window into the art of the time for the reader who is unfamiliar with it and is looking for a broad introduction.

The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short by John Willett is published by Thames & Hudson, 1984, 1987, 2011, £16.95. 160 pp., 311 mono illus. ISBN: 978-0-500-27311-1


Deborah Ascher Barnstone
Washington State University
Professor of art history
Deborah Ascher Barnstone is author of The Transparent State: Architecture and Politics in Postwar Germany

Background info

The term ‘Wilhelmine Germany’ generally refers to the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888–1918) though it can go back to the start of the reign of his grandfather (Wilhelm I) in 1871. Wilhelm II abdicated after the First World War. His government was replaced by a parliamentary republic centred on the city of Weimar, and so now known as the Weimar Republic. It effectively ceased when Hitler seized power in 1933. Science, art, music and literature all flourished during the Republic – names associated with it include the artists Paul Klee, Georg Grosz, Otto Dix, and Käthe Kollwitz, the playwright Bertholt Brecht, writer Thomas Mann, filmmaker Fritz Lang (Metropolis), the Bauhaus school of art and design, and the physicist Werner Heisenberg. The harsh economic terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles led to massive inflation in this period, with accompanying social problems, eventually giving Hitler the opportunity to take over.

John Willett (1917–2002) was a translator and scholar whose best-known scholarly work, Art and Politics of the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917–1933 laid the groundwork for this volume.

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