Bitter Truth

German Realism between the Great Wars

by Donald Kuspit

Miserabilism: the depreciation of reality in place of its  exaltation.

—André Breton, “Against Miserabilism”


A miserable being must find a more miserable being. Then he is  happy.

—Maxim Gorky, The Lower Depths

Established in 1919 in Dessau, the Bauhaus moved to Weimar in 1925, the same year in which Gustave Hartlaub coined the term Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Realism) to designate a number of works he exhibited in his Mannheim gallery. Both were socially oriented, that is, they engaged objectively with society, if  from different perspectives, and with a different sense  of purpose: where the Bauhaus had a constructive, affirmative relationship to modern society, the New Realists “studied” its destructive, undermining effects on the individual.

Ludwig Meidner, Revolution, 1913     Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany

The Bauhaus served, emulated and endorsed industrialism, and more broadly, technological society. For the Bauhaus, the machine was the perfect and infinitely perfectible work of art, as it were, and works of art had to be as carefully planned, organized and useful as a well-designed machine, a machine that would never break down (the new immortality), a machine in perpetual motion (the new exalted state of being), a machine that showed no sign of the human hand. Its “hands off ” or “hands free” or “carefree” look gave it a certain abstract ideality and utopian character, not to say uncanny beauty. One might say that, from a Bauhaus point of view, the work of art should be a happy  machine serving and seamlessly integrated in a happy society, or at least helping to make the world a happier, better—less miserable and bad—place.

Such optimism and meliorism were altogether unrealistic—blind to the social truth—from a New Realist perspective: irreconcilably antithetical to   its pessimistic appraisal of reality. For the New Realists, the religion of the beautiful machine was an ideological superstructure hiding ugly social reality. For the Bauhaus, the machine was the unexpected epitome of what Baudelaire called modern beauty—one only has to read J.K. Huysmans’s description of the body of an attractive young American woman as a well-functioning machine to get the ironical, not to say perverse, point—while, for the New Realists, it was peculiarly monstrous and menacing, as the robot-like machine-man in George Grosz’s Daum Marries (1920) shows. The work has been understood  as an update of the old Death and the Maiden theme, suggesting that the machine is an instrument of death. It was a particularly lethal, efficient one in the First World War, which has been called the first war fought by machines. Grosz’s art has been understood as a response to its horrors, more pointedly the existential damage it inflicted on human beings, and its resulting total disillusionment, not to say nihilistic disgust, with powerful social institutions. His cynical—certainly mocking—lithograph of the Crucifixion, showing Christ wearing a gas mask, and captioned “Shut your trap and soldier on,” makes this clear.

In the twenty-first century, we admire the mechanical “cure” of the handicapped body—the increasingly skillful use of mechanical body parts to restore it to functional integrity—but the “operation” did not seem so successful early in the twentieth century. What today seems like a medical miracle—certainly a sophisticated triumph of technology—then seemed like an invasive,  brutal, mocking violation of the human body, as Otto Dix’s War Cripples Playing Cards (1920) strongly suggests. The cripples have become absurdly grotesque. The machine parts added on to their bodies—we can almost hear the gears cranking—seem to announce, underscore and add to their pain and suffering. Harshly satiric, Dix and Grosz pulled no punches in focusing, with merciless accuracy and remorseless energy, on society’s failures and stupidity. They do artistic justice to human misery because there is no social justice. Human pain and social suffering are the bitter themes of the New Realists—the human pain and social suffering ignored and denied by Bauhaus industrial idealism. They are regressive emotional phenomena, inescapable experiences of the Old Adam, and beside the point of the so-called revolutionary New Man of Russian Constructivism. Bauhaus Constructivism, with its belief in the socially transformative, not to say revolutionary power, of increasingly advanced technology, follows in its footsteps. The New Man of the Machine Age—of the technologically perfected society—will surely not suffer and feel pain, for machines do not suffer and feel pain. (They just break down.)

The New Realists thought the New Man—the New Mechanical Man, that is, man de-constructed and re-constructed as an inorganic machine, every body part replaced by a longer-lasting mechanical device—was a bad joke, not to say a farce. They were obsessed with the deadening effect of machines—the machine, after all, is dead rather than alive, however life-like human machines may seem. Thus, in Rudolf Schlichter’s Dada Roof Studio (c. 1920), a work that ironically epitomizes the fatal “triumph of mechanization,” the dire effects of the mechanization of life—and of art, that is, works of art that look like weird machines in frozen motion, machine-emulating art-making that produces works of art that are symbols of machines, or blueprints for new kinds of machines, preposterous-looking and functionless but proclaiming the mechanical truth—are made ironically clear. We see “human beings in various stages of stiffening—the snob, the good little girl, the girl in disguise, the mannequin, the jointed doll, the anatomy model.”1 And last but not least, the oddly robotic, anonymous, intimidating figure in the foreground, his face completely hidden behind a gas mask and his head completely covered by a red cap, confronting us in the center of the picture; and, to complete the picture, distant on its far right side, a medical doctor wearing a different kind of gas mask and a clean white robe, his bald head contrasting with the covered head of the foreground figure. Social satire and “hollow men” come together to make a bitter point in Schlichter’s realist masterpiece.

Georg Scholz, Industrial Peasants, 1920    Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, GermanyFranz Roh, who coined  the  term  Magischer  Realismus  (Magic  Realism) in 1924, characterized New Realist style as “sober,” “clear,” “severe,” “cold,” “static,”2 but this is to ignore the immediacy it gives its real objects and the  intensity invested in articulating their details. Sometimes New Realist style   is too hot to handle, as in Ludwig Meidner’s proto-New Realist Revolution (1913)—too feverishly dynamic and emotionally agitated to be thought of as sober and cold—and sometimes it is too obscure to be easily fathomed, as in Max Beckmann’s late triptychs, among them the sinister Carnival (1943). The New Realism is a kind of social narrative art, dealing with what the modernist critic Clement Greenberg, an advocate of abstract art, dismissed as “the all too human” and beside the aesthetic point of art—the heightening of sensibility, intensifying of perception, deepening of consciousness (as though representational art could never have the same profound effect on sensibility, perception, consciousness as abstract art). But the New Realism was aesthetically prescient and stylistically complex, for it assimilated and integrated, with idiosyncratic ingeniousness, elements of virtually all the modern styles that preceded it— Cubism, Figurative Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism and Dadaism. But where these movements dehumanized art in the course of modernizing it, the New Realism re-humanized it by showing the dehumanizing effect of the modern machine society on the individual.

It is evident in the weirdly misshapen figures in Georg Scholz’s 1920 Industrial Peasants and the dummy-like figures, moving like wind-up toys, in George Grosz’s 1921 Grey Day. Whether openly at odds with modern mechanical society, as Meidner is in I and the City (1913), where he defiantly and desperately asserts his individuality, or a passive, resigned—depressed—victim  of it, as the pathetic, submissive figures in Karl Hofer’s Unemployed (1932) are, one is an embittered alien in it. Perhaps nowhere in New Realist painting is that embittered alienation more evident than in Beckmann’s self-portraits. Art for him and, I venture to say, the other German New Realists, is ironic compensation for isolation, a way of privileging the outsiderness of the artist. He makes the best of his isolation, as though it made him particularly unique, and distracts him from the fact that his art has no social effect and consequence, catalyzes no social revolution, however aesthetically revolutionary and unique it may be. Beckmann holds a horn in his Self-Portrait with Horn (1938–39), but he does not blow it. He looks heroic and defiant, but he cannot sound the call to revolutionary arms—revolt against the all-powerful Hitler, the seemingly invincible and indomitable conqueror of Europe at the time—for it is only a theatrical pose. The horn symbolizes his impotence as an actor on the social stage, and perhaps his feeling of personal impotence and artistic failure, despite his pretense of power and influence.Rudolf Schlichter, Dada Roof Studio, c. 1920   Gallery Nierendorf, Berlin Germany

Otto Dix, War Cripples Playing Cards, 1920  National Museums in Berlin , National GalleryBeckmann is not alone in masking his embittered alienation and inner sense of futility with a public pose of quasi-heroic defiance, but the pose always confirms and protectively cocoons the social and emotional isolation of the would-be heroic artist-type figures, perversely confirming their individuality. Otto Dix’s Sylvia von Harden (1926), Rudolf Schlichter’s Berthold Brecht (c. 1926–27) and Christian Schad’s Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt (1927) are isolated individuals, irreconcilably at odds with the society they inhabit, which gives them a certain aura of heroic defiance. And so is every figure in Dix’s theatrical triptych Big City (1927–28), including the figures in the nightclub, dancing in somnambulist impersonality and indifference with each other,  as well as the ugly whores and crippled soldier on the street outside the nightclub. Their worn, ruined bodies epitomize their alienation and society’s uncaring indifference to the individual. The detritus of society, they make it clear that the individual is irrelevant in capitalist mass society. Dix was a lifelong Communist, the son of working-class parents—famously seen with empathic clarity in his incisive portrait of them. His nightclub scene shows the consumerist excesses, not to say self-indulgence of capitalism, even as the street shows the human wasteland it has become. Dix identifies with the crippled soldier—Dix was in fact a soldier who actively fought in World War I; the series of prints he made dealing with its horrors are more than a match for Goya’s Disasters of War—that is, the ultimate outsider, a socially useless, dispensable individual, permanently wounded in body and soul.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut notes that the New Realism—“the leading experimental art of the Weimar Republic”—dealt with “man’s suffering a defective, fragmented, depleted self,”3  suggesting that it is a humanistic art.  In a sense, the New Realist humanism is the opposite of the old Realist humanism of the Renaissance. Renaissance Realist man had a healthy, whole body, modeled on the idealized classical body; New Realist man has an unhealthy, unwholesome body. Indeed, he is repugnant and crippled in mind as well as body, while Renaissance man is physically and mentally whole—and seemingly impervious to suffering.

What Kohut neglects to note is that the New Realist man’s suffering is  the direct result of Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Once seemingly all-powerful, it became powerless—indeed, lost its will to power (which Hitler restored)—and seemed beyond redemption and repair (despite the Bauhaus’s determination to “make it new”): thus, the bitterness of life in the Weimar Republic—the sense of life alienated from itself evident in the New Realism. His misery compounded by “the misery of social developments” in Weimar Germany,4 New Realist man could not help but envy and identify with the  machine, which worked better than he did and never seemed at a loss, as he always was. (Respect for the machine was the one thing New Realism and Bauhaus Constructivism shared, although, for New  Realism,  the  machine was more devilish than divine.) He could not help feeling bitter—resentful and angry at once—because postwar German society had failed him, making him aware of his inconsequence. Werner Heldt’s drawing Parade of the Non- Entities, c. 1935 (also known as Meeting), makes the point clearly: the New Realist everyman felt like—and was—a non-entity in a crowd of non-entities, a featureless zero (rather than a heroic individualist) in a mass society. All the zeros—Heldt uses the “figure” of zero, repeated ad nauseum, to represent   the human figure—add up to nothing, make no social difference, change nothing, suggesting the futility behind the nihilistic bitterness and masochistic miserabilism of the New Realist nobody, and the bitterness that informs New Realist art.



  1. Eberhard Roters, “Painting,” Berlin 1910–1933 (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), 88.

  2. Franz Roh, German Painting in the 20th Century (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1968), 71.

  3. Heinz Kohut, “Self Psychology and the Sciences of Man,” Self Psychology and the Humanities (New York: Norton, 1985), 89.

  4. Joachim Heusinger von Waldegg, “Sculpture,” Berlin 1910–1933, 132.


American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2016, Volume 36, Number 1