This exhibition of Dresdener Neue Sachlichkeit, spread over two floors of the imposing neoclassical Kunsthalle in the heart of Dresden’s old city, was the first to reunite works produced in Dresden between 1918 and 1933. It provided a key to the unique artistic output of the city as well as comparisons with other artistic centres in Germany from the period. Drawing upon the substantial collection held in the nearby Galerie Neue Meister, and notable works on loan from other German galleries, the exhibition broke new ground in the study of Weimar German art. It may come as a surprise, when one considers the stature of a number of artists who studied in Dresden, that this was the first time that Dresdener Neue Sachlichkeit became the subject of a major exhibition, and of a major scholarly publication.
The work of seventy artists spread over 140 paintings, forty drawings and prints, as well as a small number of sculptures and photographs, offered new perspectives on familiar works by relocating them in their original artistic context. In addition, the inclusion of exceptional examples by lesser-known artists, a number of whom are rarely studied even in Germany, and in certain cases may be regarded as newly discovered artists, permitted a reconstruction of the overall picture of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Dresden, and reveals the astonishing depth and breadth of work produced in the Saxon capital during the 1920s. The exhibition addressed how Dresdener Neue Sachlichkeit took on a distinct character of its own, highlighting the formal and stylistic features specific to the region, particularly its marriage of social realism with an elegance reminiscent of the Old Masters.
The result is a tightly-composed overview of this artistic trend during the Weimar Republic in Dresden, a period of rampant inflation, short-term stabilisation and fragile peace, in which artists sought to picture their world in a so-called objective manner, with cool distance and precision. On entering this exhibition, the visitor is met by one of the most salient images categorised under the term Neue Sachlichkeit, Otto Dix’s In der Schönheit (To Beauty, 1922). In the midst of the temptations of the modern metropolis, stands a resilient Dix, his right hand casually placed in his jacket pocket, the left almost defiantly holding a symbol of the new industrial age, the telephone. The viewer senses Dix’s unease, his broodiness. Enforced coolheadedness amidst the rollicking decadence of the early 1920s, is the theme of this painting, and one that partially translates the meaning of the term Neue Sachlichkeit, the common English translation of which – ‘New Sobriety’ – does not fully convey its meaning. Dix’s centrality to this exhibition was fitting: aside from his stature as a major proponent of the style, the Kunstakademie, located next to the Kunsthalle, was where he taught as professor of painting from 1927 to 1933, and from whose studios emerged a number of prominent artists who would form part of the Dix-Schule, several of whom were represented in this exhibition and hitherto had received little attention. Their inclusion here, particularly through the quality of Gerhard Meyer’s portrait of his father (1930) and Kurt Eichler’s Mädchen im karierten Kleid (Girl in a Plaid Dress, 1930), reveals the extent of Dix’s legacy.
Meticulous instruction given in drawing, coupled with the study of old master painting at the Dresden Kunstakademie was reflected in the sturdy portraits and other figurative works which dominated the exhibition. George Grosz’s scathing social commentary in Grauer Tag (Grey Day, 1921) and affectionate portrait of friend Max Hermann-Neiße (1925) exemplified his superlative draughtsmanship while the virulent grotesquerie of Dix’s Drei Weiber (Three Women, 1926), countered by his more sympathetic images of mothers and children such as Frau mit Kind (Mother and Child, 1921), issued his debt to German masters, in particular Lucas Cranach (1472-1553). Studies of the single figure predominated, ranging from the refined elegance of Irena Rüther-Rabinowicz’s Selbstbildnis (Self-Portrait, 1925) to poignant images of the destitute by Erich Ockert, Wilhelm Lachnit and Curt Querner. While the prevailing themes were by no means peculiar to work produced in Dresden, the union of exquisite detail with the technique of applying successive layers of oil in the manner of German old masters (and sometimes emulating their use of panel) emerged as a definitive trait of Dresden artists.
If one had a gripe, it would have been the absence of perhaps the most representative image of postwar Dresden, Dix’s dadaist collage painting Prager Straße (Prague Street, 1920), which shows a crippled war veteran begging on an affluent Dresden street to the indifference of passers-by. The relatively deficient quantity of war-related imagery in the Kunsthalle somewhat altered the postwar impression of the city; Dix’s watercolour of facially-disfigured veterans Zur Erinnerung an die große Zeit (Memory of Greater Times, 1923), Hans Theo Richter’s etching Amputierter Bettler (Begging Amputee, 1924) and Horst Naumann’s commentary on German militarism Weimarer Fasching (Weimar Carnival, 1928/29) were among the handful of images presented. A short walk to the nearby Albertinum proved corrective, nonetheless: it houses Dix’s darkly sumptuous pièce de la résistance, the massive triptych Der Krieg (The War, 1928-1932), based on his study of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheimer Altar (1506-15) and arguably the most powerful anti-war painting produced in any era.
Overall, this exhibition, and the substantial catalogue that accompanies it, filled an important research gap in the examination of Weimar German art. While it may not have attended fully to the strength of artistic endeavour in 1920s Dresden, it succeeded in defining a Dresden school of the Weimar period. Perhaps more significantly, it initiated a point of departure for the study of previously neglected artists whose rightful place in this exhibition allowed for a more comprehensive understanding of one of the most dynamic moments in the history of twentieth-century art.
New Objectivity in Dresden was on view 1 October 2011 – 8 January 2012. For more visit www.skd.museum/en/special-exhibitions/new-objectivity-in-dresden