World War I and its aftermath produced tremendous change in the art of German-speaking countries. While many artists and intellectuals embraced the war enthusiastically at its outset, their experiences in the trenches and on the home front led to widespread disillusionment. Political uncertainty and the destabilization of German culture in the war’s wake led many artists to question their role in society, the viability of art as an agent of social change, and the relevance of traditional artistic media. During this frequently volatile period between the world wars, Germany became one of the most dynamic, innovative cultural centers in Europe.
By 1918, the two primary expressionist groups, Brücke (Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), had long since dissolved, but individual expressionist artists emerged from the war as a driving force. The increasing institutionalization of the movement, and its ubiquity in everything from propaganda posters to commercial advertisements, however, caused even former supporters to doubt its critical power, and by 1920 they had declared it dead. The decade that followed was thus largely marked by tendencies either originating in or polemically opposed to the movement. Such postexpressionist production became best known under the rubric Neue Sachlichkeit (typically translated as New Objectivity), and was characterized by an unsentimental and socially critical view of the world.
Formed in 1919, the Bauhaus, the progressive German school of art and design, began as a manifestation of the expressionist, utopian spirit of the immediate postwar period. It was organized into workshops and sought to bring together artists, designers, and craftsmen as equal partners in creating art, objects, and environments. Around 1923, however, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius called for a “new unity” of art and technology, and the school’s emphasis shifted away from craft toward industrial design. Extending beyond its walls to include like-minded members of the international avant-garde, the Bauhaus network led to a radical rethinking of art’s role in a technological age.
The artists represented in these galleries sought not only to redefine the relationship between art and politics, but also to revolutionize human perception. They did so within traditional forms like painting and sculpture, or by embracing new media such as photography, film, and collage, making this period one of extraordinary creative production.