What are important ideas in art

Weimar Republic

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Dr. Martina Weinland has been director of the collection department at the Stadtmuseum Berlin Foundation since 2008 and cultural heritage officer at the Stadtmuseum Berlin Foundation since 2018.

The Weimar Republic opened up new freedoms for art and culture. Many artists also saw the republic as a task: They wanted to use their art to help build a democratic society. An overview of the culture of the Weimar Republic - between departure and conflict.

The Bauhaus Orchestra in the Bauhaus Academy in Dessau, around 1931. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

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In a nutshell

  • The artistic freedom of the Weimar Republic inspired numerous areas of culture. Many artists wanted to help build a democratic society with their art.
  • New media such as radio and cinema shaped the cultural world right down to broad sections of the population. The cultural workers also looked for new fields thematically: topics such as everyday culture or the emancipation of women found their way into art.
  • The social polarization of the Weimar Republic was also reflected in the conflicts between cultural traditionalists and representatives of a new "modernity".

The German monarchy ended with a bit of stumbling and the Weimar Republic, which was proclaimed on November 9, 1918, started bumpy. This proclaimed the first free republic in Germany and opened the way for parliamentary democracy. The new constitution, signed on August 11, came into force on August 14, 1919. It was adopted in Weimar and gave the republic its name for a period of almost 13 years. During its entire existence, this republic had to endure severe internal and external stresses provoked by radical political forces from left and right. And yet this new republic opened up opportunities for almost all areas of society that had previously been unthinkable in the Wilhelmine era. Article 142 of the Weimar Constitution guaranteed that art, science and their teaching are free. The state offered them protection and participated in their care. There should be no more censorship. This did not apply to the still new medium of film; different provisions could be made for light games by law (Article 118).

With this written commitment in Article 142 of the Imperial Constitution, free groups and associations from all artistic fields (music, theater, visual arts and literature, but also architecture and design) felt addressed and asked to help shape a new, democratic society. The common will for change and renewal was also expressed in terms such as New Objectivity, New Woman and New Living. The "new" corresponded to the younger generation's attitude towards life and often met with resistance from older, conservative circles. Art should all the more help to "create" a new person who would shape his future in an open-minded and enlightened manner. In this task, the interests of both free groups and state initiatives were bundled and the image of the young democracy should reflect this.

Official cultural maintenance

Only a few months after the Reich Constitution came into force in 1919, the position of Reich Art Warden was created, based at the Reich Ministry of the Interior, with the aim of centrally managing and maintaining the future artistic orientation of the Weimar Republic in all state art and culture issues and the artistic shaping of the To create empire binding. This concerned aesthetic and artistic requirements for all state symbols such as coats of arms, flags, coins, banknotes, postage stamps, etc. The great expectations that were originally aimed at this national cultural authority were not fulfilled because the future Reichskunstwart was given very little room for maneuver with a modest financial budget . So this office could actually only advise and mediate between the individual cultural currents. The well-connected art historian and museum director Edwin Redslob (1884-1973), who sought to develop a contemporary design language for the new republic without pomp and trinkets, recommended himself for this complex office. An impressive insight into this understanding was demonstrated by the funeral ceremonies on October 6, 1929 in the Berlin Reichstag for the Reich Foreign Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Gustav Stresemann, who had died three days earlier. The funeral procession led with the politician's coffin, which was pulled by six black-coated horses, past the Brandenburg Gate, which was also covered with black banners, to the Reichstag. Along the funeral procession, all street furniture such as lanterns, including the monuments on Königsplatz, were covered with black covers. The overall impression conveyed a calm monumentality of pausing.

József Bató, The Burial of Gustav Stresemann, 1929. (& copy With the kind permission of the Stadtmuseum Berlin Foundation. József Bató, The burial of Gustav Stresemann, 1929; GEM 80/27 A)

The new statecraft of the republic should mediate a connection between modernity and awakening and the foundations of democracy: freedom of expression and religion, free elections, independent judiciary and separation of powers. Stylistically, Redslob saw this as given in the art movement of Expressionism. It was therefore only logical to invite Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, a co-founder of the expressionist artist group "Brücke", to come up with a new design for the imperial eagle - a project of state symbolic power. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's woodcut design found hardly any supporters in parliament. In public, his design was even criticized as a caricature, derisively called "bankrupt vulture".

The cabinet finally decided against Schmidt-Rottluff's eagle and in favor of a design by the artist Emil Doepler. On November 11, 1919, Reich President Ebert stipulated that the future Reich coat of arms should show an eagle on a golden background with a head turned to the right and open wings in black, while the beak, tongue and fangs should be red. Another task of the new Reichskunstwart was to develop a new formal language for official ceremonies and state celebrations. But here, too, Redslob encountered problems, such as the Constitution Day celebrations showed. After the government decided in 1921 to introduce August 11th as a constitutional day for the new identity-creating national holiday - albeit without the status of a public holiday - this event should be staged artistically and in a way that supports the state. The annual festival served to demonstrate the close ties between the state and the people. In Berlin, for example, the Reichstag was open on that day, while a military band played on the square in front of it and fair-like amusements were intended to reinforce the character of a folk festival. In fact, August 11th was not able to establish itself as a national holiday to create identity across Germany. This was largely due to the inconsistent regulation within the empire. The last time the Constitution Day celebrations took place on August 11, 1932.

Art for everyone

Even in the turmoil of revolution and upheaval after the abdication in 1918, artists from the fields of painting, sculpture, theater, music and architecture joined together to form the politically avant-garde November group. Together they wanted to open up to all walks of life, regardless of their own stylistic directions. The members of the group shared the conviction that they could use their artistic means to help build a democratic society. Art should not only appeal to a limited class of education, as it was in the imperial era, but should be accessible to everyone. Art should help to create a vision of the new, enlightened and open-minded person and make it a reality. The group saw itself as the ideal of a pluralistic society, which was also expressed in the fact that there was no stylistic definition within the group of over 400 artists. It was seen as an advantage to represent all modern trends from Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada to New Objectivity. It was precisely this diversity and freedom of movement of the individual art styles that corresponded to the democratic ideas of the Weimar Republic.


Rudolf Schlichter: Margot, 1924. (& copy Courtesy of: Viola Roehr von Alvensleben - Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin Reproduction: Michael Setzpfandt, Berlin)
In the roughly 15 years of its existence up to its forcible dissolution under the National Socialists in 1933, the Novembergruppe strived for a cultural symbiosis with the complex society of the Weimar Republic, a successful balancing act between the cultural traditions of the educated middle class and modernity. In addition to the art exhibitions, the program naturally included a series of lectures and readings. Besides Bertolt Brecht, Wassily Kandinsky, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, only a few artists such as Käthe Kollwitz, Hannah Höch and Emy Roeder were among the group's members. This was also a result of the admission restrictions at the art academies that had applied to women during the imperial era. It was only since the beginning of the Weimar Republic that women were increasingly able to emancipate themselves, were allowed to vote and study, and were able to fight for freedom, as in the November group.

Women were also seen in these artistic circles as the new target group who should emancipate themselves from the traditional role assignment as mother and 'little house at the stove'. Here, too, the art scene took up social grievances, addressed contemporary debates about the repeal or amendment of the so-called abortion paragraph (§ 218) and interfered in socio-political terms. One of the main protagonists is the graphic artist and set designer Alice Lex-Nerlinger, who was one of the avant-garde political artists in the Weimar Republic and who took up provocative themes of the proletariat and the young women's movement in her work. Central to this was the debate about the right to a self-determined pregnancy or the right to have an abortion.

Literature for everyone

The literature of the new era, texts, poems, ballads, dramas and literary descriptions should, according to the November group's conception, realistically sketch the everyday life of the population and the fate of individuals without pathos and without illusions. Many actions took place in the big cities, because there social grievances and social discrepancies became more pronounced. Artists like Ernst Barlach, Heinrich Zille and Hans Baluschek were among those who took a critical look at the precarious situation of the proletariat without any chance of a better future.

Hans Baluschek Zukunft, 1920. (& copy with kind permission: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin Reproduction: Michael Setzpfandt, Berlin.)
The focus of the contemporary literary scene also shifted to the description of the world of work, which changed significantly as the traditional craft professions increasingly disappeared and were replaced by a new type of employee. Office work changed the rhythm of life of many people, their daily routines and the social conditions in the cities. The well-known works that were created between 1918 and 1933 or that deal critically with this epoch and describe the upheavals in relentless social reportage include Alfred Döblin's novels "Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1929) and "November 1918 - a German Revolution" (4-part novel cycle, 1937-1943). This novel tries to derive a conclusion between the failure of the November Revolution and the rise of the National Socialists, because Döblin affirmed democracy and hoped to inspire the population with his literary work. He was also one of the founding members of the group in 1925, in which left-wing writers and artists such as George Grosz and Rudolf Schlichter had come together in Berlin in 1925.

Publishing houses played an important role in the dissemination of city literature. In addition to an abundance of daily, lunchtime and evening newspapers, which published the latest news and features almost every hour, and the satirical papers "Ulk" and "Simplicissimus", there were the weekly magazines "Die Pleite" and the small but widely read magazine "Die Weltbühne "(1928-1933). Later novels were often preprinted in these magazines. Big names at that time were Kurt Tucholsky, Siegfried Jacobsohn and the publishers Samuel Fischer as well as Bruno and Paul Cassirer. The literary avant-garde found itself and its ideals again in new literature, in the programs of theaters and variety shows and, from the mid-1920s, also in the new medium of broadcasting.

The theater in the Weimar Republic was often political: here the proletarian cultural organization "Kolonne Links". (& copy Bundesarchiv, BildY 1-9B86-699-89, Helma Toelle)



Broadcasting for everyone

Unknown photographer Berlin in the light. Radio tower and house of the broadcasting industry, 1928. (& copy with kind permission: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin Reproduction: Michael Setzpfandt, Berlin.)
The Weimar period also marked the beginning of a fundamental change in the media. Artists and cultural workers could no longer only present their content on canvases or printed paper, but now also via radio: With the first broadcast on October 29, 1923 from the Berlin radio station in the Vox-Haus, radio became increasingly popular as part of the democratization of the republic significant role too. Numerous radio authors, including Bertolt Brecht, experimented with new formats. In 1929, Brecht encouraged his listeners to play along in his radio play Lindbergh. With the help of broadcasting, the listeners should also be able to complete distance learning and deepen their general education.

Weimar culture in conflict

Harry Graf Kessler, an art collector, publicist, diplomat and pacifist well-known beyond Weimar and Germany, made public comments on the emerging, increasingly nationalist tendencies. He was given a concrete occasion in 1930 when the National Socialist Wilhelm Frick took office as Minister of the Interior and Education in Thuringia, under whose leadership republican-minded people were dismissed and National Socialist supporters (mainly in the police force) were hired.

Source text

"Frick over Germany!"

When in 1904 Wilhelm II decreed that the pictures by German artists who belonged to the Secession were not allowed to be exhibited at the World Exhibition in St. Louis, the most well-known German artists gathered in Weimar for a successful protest and founded to protect German art against the arbitrariness of the then emperor the German Artists Association. Today, on the orders of Mr. Frick, the pictures of Franz Marc (a war-dead German officer, so certainly a soldier at the front), Kokoschka, Klee and other German artists who enjoy a European reputation are being expelled from the Weimar Museum in order to reflect the taste of home art To meet Professor Schulze-Naumburg, who was certainly not a soldier at the front and has no European reputation.

If Weimar, which was a center of German intellectual life for a century and a half, can be forcibly turned into an insignificant small town, that is regrettable, but not a matter that is vital for the rest of Germany. After all, Germany has other cultural centers that can replace Weimar. But it is a first-rate German affair when the spirit that empties the museums in Weimar due to a narrow-minded and frizzy ideology and leaves the formerly flourishing art school deserted, spreads over the entire German cultural area. Unfortunately, the attitude that oppresses Weimar today also prevails in Munich, as the ban on plays like "Cyankali" and Döblin's "Ehe" proves. And now we have had to experience the shameful spectacle, how even in Berlin this same spirit, embodied in a small group of schoolboys and street boys made wild, brings the German government to its knees and thus inflicts a wound on Germany's reputation that will not be repairable for years . It is the spirit that prevails in Weimar today that triumphed in Berlin when the Remarque film was banned [note: nothing new in the West]. Frick about Germany! Against this small-town ghost, which today threatens not only the German economy and politics, but also German culture, one must call on the German will for culture and cannot formulate this call any better than in the words of Mr. Frick himself and his friends: Germany awake! Signed Harry Graf Kessler, Berlin 17th XII. 1930 to the central editorial office for German newspapers.Source: private property, Berlin

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When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, Reichskunstwart Redslob was forcibly retired by NSDAP Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick - a declared opponent of modernity. The position of Reichskunstwart went to the newly created Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.Under the direction of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, the state no longer protected the freedom of art and culture, but in future controlled all content of the press, literature, the visual arts as well as film, theater and music.

Kulturkampf between right and left

This change had already been announced at the end of the 1920s. During this time, the controversies between the politically left and right-wing camps increased sharply. These tensions also grew in the cultural sector and became noticeable in controversial discussions among architects, led by the Swiss architect Alexander von Senger. With nationally like-minded architects who are committed to the "Heimatstil", such as German Bestelmeyer and Paul Schultze-Naumburg, Senger formed the "Kampfbund Deutscher Architekten und Ingenieure" in 1931 in order to stop the "advance of modernity". Above all, the functionality of the buildings and the complete renunciation of any ornamentation were a thorn in the side of the Kampfbund. The theoretical approach that the form should correspond to the function was another point of criticism. The association's attacks were therefore directed primarily against members of the International Style such as Le Corbusier and against representatives of the state Bauhaus such as Mies van der Rohe. The Bauhaus, the art school founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, was part of the avant-garde in all areas of art and architecture. In 1925 the school moved to Dessau. In 1931 the NSDAP won the municipal elections there and in 1932 was able to enforce the closure of the state Bauhaus. A short interlude as a private institute in Berlin followed. In 1933, the once popular school there had to be closed due to the National Socialist reprisals against teachers and students. Many former Bauhaus members emigrated. The reprisals now increasingly affected all other branches of art and culture. So everything modern and different was labeled and defamed as cultural Bolshevism. The ideal, to which many cultural workers were committed at the beginning of the Weimar Republic, in order to realize a rational, enlightened society with democratic values ​​through art, was finally shattered when the National Socialists came to power in 1933.