Die Promethean

Weimar artist's Social Satire
First Issue
   A Bourgois Liberal Writes..
   Have You Seen the New Kurosawa
   Universal Chaplin
   Weimar artist's Social Satire
   An Autumn Evening in Hertfordshire
   Holding a Candle to the True Gothic
   Forthcoming Feature
   Thought Page

In the Weimar republic and first world war of Germany ,there arose man's striking new forms of art. The most telling of the moral and social position of the period was labelled "new objectivity". The primary artists in the movement, which sprung from Berlin DADA, were Otto Dix and George Grosz. Carl Einstein: "Grosz and Dix smash reality by poignant activity, unmask the period and compel us to self-irony." Dix used a very clear cut technique, like that of the old masters, where Grosz used crude and ugly forms to make his intellectual, moral, and artistic statements.


Dix had a very enthusiastic outlook at the beginning of the war, he records: "I didn't want to miss it at any price. You have to have seen human beings in this unleashed state to know what human nature is". He wanted to experience the depths of life; the abysses which Freud saw revealed in battle. This feeling was something in which Grosz could not share, his attitude was purely negative, but this was not so for another Weimar artist Max Beckmann. Both Dix and Beckmann had expressed a great interest in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche years before 1914: when war came, Nietzsche's "The Joyous Science" accompanied the Bible in their knapsacks. The new philosopher's notion of a principle of chaos, and more fundamentally a need for destruction in order for a rebirth, appealed to man at the start of the great war, seeing that mankind would be better for the experience of war. In his preface to the book, Nietzsche describes the wonderful feeling of having recovered from a long illness and seeing the world in a new light.


Otto Dix, as early as 1911 sculpted a bust of Friedrich Neitzsche. In his 1914 painting "Self Portrait as Mars" (the war God), Nietzsche's notion of a cruel Dionysian Principle of Chaos, destruction and rebirth, and the notion of a dancing star, all interwoven in the 'wheel of life' were brought together. The wheel of life: A spoked wheel revolves over his heart, a horse rears inward towards his neck, repeating the circular motion. He therefore depicts the himself as perpetrator of this destruction and transformation. This last symbol was used in Beckmann's "Scene from the Destruction of Messina". Struggle for survival was also made graphic in his work "Titanic". Dix's portrayal of the trenches (in 'shellhole with flowers', 1915 and 'Trench with flowers', 1917) gouged as if by a big plough , transforming the front lines into a fruitful field,on whose edges, flowers and grass already grow.


But at the end of the great war, Dix had lost all faith in a better world. Embittered and disappointed in the war, in which he had hopes of great change; he now started to see mankind in a harsher light, more like Grosz. In Dix's pictures of cripples and invalids (recurring theme of Grosz), he stormed with a veterans anger, the indifference of civilians to the suffering of war victims. Although he still thought Nietzsche was right, in seeing life as a vicious circle of birth and death, he no longer saw mankind spiralling upwards to a better state. The brutal images of sex murders in Dix's new work represent an attempt to break free from the vicious circle, as in "Sex Murderer" (self portrait) where he saw himself as perpetrator and victim. However, the attempt was in vain; next to the prostitute's mangled and bloody corpse on a bed in "Rape and Murder" (1922), two dogs copulate. Even four years after the war, the symbolism of the dogs and corpse show the cycle of procreation and death continuing. As a contrast, no such symbolism was used in Grosz. "Jack the Ripper" (1918) slinks away from the scene of his felonious act, and in "When it was allover they played cards" (1917), a gang of three men sit complacently round a table, playing cards; one of them sitting on a box with a dismembered corpse of a woman sticking out of it, and various parts scattered around the floor. In his drawing "Rape and Murder on Ackerstrasse - a night to remember", the body (less head) of the woman lies on the bed, while in the background the culprit, looking on in calm satisfaction, washes his hands of the deed.


For George Grosz, his time in the army had turned him against everything. He was to become Berlin's most savage political and social artist. He recorded at the time of the first world war: "Everything I saw of people filled me with disgust and revulsion". For in these sentiments of an artist, he could obviously find no refuge in any false aestheticism. He started to copy graffiti from public toilets, what he called "the crudest reflection of the artistic urge. They seemed to be the most direct expression and translation of strong sensations". He became more and more of a misanthropic loner, who felt surrounded by stupid, ugly, brutal people. He summed up his feelings when he said "you really begin to wonder how it can be possible that ...millions of people exist so mindlessly, so unable to see what is really happening".


He felt that in showing crime and violence in an exaggerated manner, art might actually have a restraining effect on reality. His painting 'Funeral Procession' he described as a 'picture of hell', a 'Gin Lane of grotesque dead men and madmen', a 'swarm of possessed human beasts', expressing his conviction that 'this era is sailing downhill on to destruction'. A procession of ugly figures rush like an army going to battle, all close together, with Alcoholism, Pestilence and Syphilis leading the way. A moon­faced priest waves a crucifix in a vain "attempt to create order from chaos. Officers swing their swords, while buildings seem to almost topple onto the crowds beneath. In the midst, riding a coffin is the triumphant figure of Death.


His portfolio of 1923/24 was ECCE HOMO, (for Grosz's purpose 'Behold this is man' rather than when referring to Christ as 'Behold the man'), a brilliant artistic account of Germany's bankrupt morality. It was immediately confiscated and banned. Some of the plates were destroyed. Grosz's work showed a realistic panorama of moral decay" but was not political; rather, it brought the bourgeois under attack for his way of life, his erotic proclivities.


He was revered by some and hated by others, but his types were considered to represent the true face of Germany. A year and a half later, he painted what is probably his most famous picture, "Pillars of Society", going into deeper social and this time political comment. It showed the ex-fraternity man with duelling scars and Nazi stickpin, the fat German nationalist with his head full of manure, the red nosed clergyman who would bless everything indiscriminately the ruthless military man with pistol and bloody sword, and the reactionary journalist with a palm leaf in his hand and chamber pot on his head. The painting was renovated from a drawing made some six years earlier; the position in society hadn't changed, so why should the comment?


The period between the first world war and the rise of Nazi Germany had been very heavily criticised in brilliant new artistic forms by George Grosz and otto Dix, but to no avail. The more and more these horrific pictures were shown in different forms the more people got used to them and the shock effect ceased to shock. Grosz commented that when Hitler rose to power, "I felt like a boxer who had lost, all that had been done had been done in vain". Both artists had been fighting for a lost cause.


George Grosz made the fiercest attack on society in First World War and Weimar Germany. Yet a few years later he condemned his own work. Grosz called his earlier drawings 'pseudo-art', adding that an artist who made fun of people's mundane comedies and tragedies was "like a violinist scratching on too small a violin". In 1933 and onwards he was able to see his art, and that of his contemporaries in hindsight. He had always been a realist. He believed that the cynical observations of the Weimar artists and writers had contributed to the rise of the Nazis. They showed so many bad social aspects of Germany and the need for change and freedom but had no clear idea of what form change and freedom should take.


The time of these two brilliant and yet tragic artists had produced an extraordinary body of work. They combined artistic creation with uncompromising social comment. In their social objectives _s moralists they could be seen to have failed, but as historical fact blatantly portrayed in their new form of art, they have shown themselves to be of supreme importance, giving a unique insight and understanding of the harsh realities of the true face of Germany in the 1914-1933 period.