Revolution and the Weimar Avant-Garde: Contesting the Politics of Art, 1919–1924

  • Debbie Lewer
Part of the Studies in European Culture and History book series (SECH)


“The revolution has brought us the freedom to express and to realize desires held for years…The call ‘Art for the People!’ is no empty cry.”1These were the words of the Expressionist painter Max Pechstein, writing in the November Group pamphlet An alle Künstler (To All Artists) in 1919. His declaration, based more on hope than actuality, caught the tenor of the age. In the wake of the collapse of the monarchy and the end of the First World War in November 1918, many avant-garde writers and artists engaged intensively with the prospect of revolution. In countless manifestos, poems, plays, articles, proclamations, and images infused with the “spirit of November,” they articulated a sense of both subjective, individual liberation and objective, collective purpose. However, there were also conflicts within the already deeply factionalized German avant-garde. Focusing on late Expressionism and aspects of Berlin Dada’s anti-Expressionist polemics, this chapter addresses some of the key debates surrounding art and politics in the period 1918–1924. It examines, in particular, these disparate groupings’ visual iconography of political agitation. In so doing, it seeks to shed new light on some of these conflicts, as a well as to provide a more meaningful context for the common motif of the agitator than that of a nebulous “spirit of revolution.”2


Class Struggle Expressionist Writer Social Democratic Party Weimar Republic Bourgeois Culture 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Max Pechstein, “Was wir wollen” in An alle Künstler! (Berlin, 1919), 18–22. Beginning in December, 1918, Pechstein put his art in the service of the new (largely SPD) government’s Publicity Office (Werbedienst) and against Spartacist politics. Joan Weinstein, The End of Expressionism: Art and the November Revolution in Germany 1918–1919 (Chicago, 1990), 32–33. The early stages of research for this essay were generously supported by a research travel grant from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On the ambivalent relationship between Expressionism and Dada, see Richard Sheppard, Modernism-Dada-Postmodernism (Evanston, 2000), 236–65.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See in particular the texts by Ernst Bloch (in defense), Georg Lukács (in attack), and others in Die Expressionismusdebatte: Materialien zu einer marx-istischen Realismuskonzeption, ed. Hans-Jürgen Schmitt (Frankfurt, 1973); Frederic Jameson, ed., Aesthetics and Politics (London, 1977).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Richard Huelsenbeck, “Dadaistisches Manifest” (April, 1918) in Dada Almanach, ed. Richard Huelsenbeck (New York, 1966, orig. 1920), 35–41.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The agitator motif is discussed in Diether Schmidt, “Die Gestalt des Agitators in der proletarisch-revolutionären Kunst,” Bildende Kunst, vol. 11 (November, 1964). The term “Expressionism” has varied over time in meaning. See Charles Haxthausen, “A Critical Illusion: ‘Expressionism’ in the Writings of Wilhelm Hausenstein” in The Ideological Crisis of Expressionism: The Literary and Artistic German War Colony in Belgium, 1914–1918, ed. Rainer Rumold and O.K. Werckmeister (Columbia, S.C., 1990), 169–91.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Erhard Frommheld, “Politischer Expressionismus—expressionistische Politik” in Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie und Kupferstichkabinett, Expressionisten: Die Avantgarde in Deutschland, 1905–1920 (East Berlin, 1986), 67.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    On the relationship of the avant-garde to the politics of the Left, see Weinstein, Expressionism; John Zammito, The Great Debate: “Bolshevism” and the Literary Left in Germany, 1917–1930 (New York, 1984); Barbara McCloskey, George Grosz and the Communist Party: Art and Radicalism in Crisis, 1918 to 1936 (Princeton, 1997).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Lothar Schreyer, “Expressionistische Dichtung” in Theorie des Expressionismus, ed. Otto Best (Stuttgart, 1976), 170–72. Schreyer worked at the Bauhaus in Weimar, mainly in the Theatre Workshop, between 1920 and 1923.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Conrad Felixmüller, Legenden (1977), quoted in Conrad Felixmüller: Das druckgraphische Werk 1912 bis 1976 im Kunstmuseum Dusseldorf ed. Friedrich Heckmanns (Dusseldorf, 1986), 40.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Ludwig Meidner, “An alle Künstler, Dichter, Musiker,” Der Anbruch (January, 1919): 1.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    Felix Stössinger, “Moderne revolutionäre Kunst,” Freie Welt: Illustrierte Wochenschrift der USPD (October 17, 1920), 4–5, 8.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    The final scene climaxes with Friedrich’s call for the people to rise up from their misery and the people’s response—repeating his words, rising as one, raising their hands, and marching in unison to “revolution! revolution!” Ernst Toller, Die Wandlung: Das Ringen eines Menschen (Potsdam, 1919), 94.Google Scholar
  13. 22.
    See Richard Dove, Revolutionary Socialism in the Work of Ernst Toller (New York, 1986), 80–82.Google Scholar
  14. 23.
    John Spalek, “Ernst Toller: The Need for a New Estimate” (1966), quoted in Frank Trommler, “Ernst Toller: The Redemptive Power of the Failed Revolutionary” in German Writers and Politics, 1918–39, ed. Richard Dove and Stephen Lamb (Houndmills, 1992), 62. Both authors discuss the need for a more measured assessment of Toller.Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    See Wilhelm Hausenstein, “Die Kunst in diesem Augenblick,” Der neue Merkur (1919/20): 119–37. On the relationship between Expressionist uto-pianism and radical politics, see Jost Hermand and Frank Trommler, Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik (Munich, 1978); Eva Kolinsky, Engagierter Expressionismus: Politik und Literatur zwischen Weltkrieg und Weimarer Republik (Stuttgart, 1970).Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    Alfred Kuhn, “Gestern und Morgen” in idem, et al, Situation 1924: Künstlerische und kulturelle Manifestationen (Ulm, 1924), 5–6.Google Scholar
  17. 26.
    Ernst Toller in Quer Durch (1930), cited in Ernst Toller: Plays One, ed. and trans. Alan Pearlman (London, 2000), 121.Google Scholar
  18. 27.
    Anon., “Rückblick und Ausblick,” Klassenkampf (1924), 1. On the perceived triumph of “classicism” over Dadaism, see L. Zahn, “Dadaismus oder Klassizismus,” Der Ararat: Glossen Skizzen und Notizen zur neuen Kunst (1920), 50–2.Google Scholar
  19. 31.
    On the Kunstlumpdebatte, see Brigid Doherty, “The Work of Art and the Problem of Politics in Berlin Dada,” October (Summer, 2003): 73–92; McCloskey, George Grosz; Fahnders and Rector, Literatur.Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    George Grosz and John Heartfield, “Der Kunstlump,“ Der Gegner (1919/1920), 48–56.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Gertrud Alexander, “Herrn John Heartfield und George Grosz,” Rote Fahne (June 9, 1920), and “Kunst, Vandalismus und Proletariat: Erwiderung,” Rote Fahne (June 23 and 24, 1920), reprinted in Fähnders and Rector, Literatur, 55–7, 60–5.Google Scholar
  22. 34.
    August Thalheimer, “Das Proletariat und die Kunst: Politische Bemerkungen,” Die Rote Fahne (June 24, 1920), reprinted in ibid., 66.Google Scholar
  23. 35.
    Franz Seiwert, “Das Loch in Rubens Schinken,” Die Aktion (1920), reprinted in Der Schritt der einmal getan wurde, wird nicht zurückgenommen: Franz W. Seiwert. Schriften, ed. Uli Bohnen and Dirk Backes (Berlin, 1978), 16. See also Seiwert, “Tuet Bekenntnis” (1920) in ibid.Google Scholar
  24. 36.
    Anatoli Lunatscharski, Die Kulturaufgaben der Arbeiterklasse (Berlin-Wilmersdorf, 1919).Google Scholar
  25. 37.
    Aleksander Bogdanoff, Die Kunst und das Proletariat (Leipzig, 1919), 28.Google Scholar
  26. 38.
    Raoul Hausmann, “Puffke propagiert Proletkult,” Die Aktion (1921), reprinted in Fahnders and Rector, Literatur, 119–23.Google Scholar
  27. 43.
    Douglas Kellner, “Expressionism and Rebellion” in Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, ed. Stephen E. Bronner and Douglas Kellner (London, 1983), 15.Google Scholar
  28. 44.
    Hubert van den Berg, “Dada Zurich, Anarchismus und Boheme,” Neophilologus (1987): 583.Google Scholar
  29. 51.
    Vorstand des Deutschen Landarbeiter-Verbandes, Materialien zur Beurteilung der kommunistischen Agitation unter den Landarbeitern und Kleinbauern (Berlin, 1919), 10.Google Scholar
  30. 52.
    Dr. Wilhelm Spickernagel, Die Kunst des Redens: Vortrag, gehalten im Politischen Ausbildungskursus der Deutschen Volkspartei (Berlin, 1919), 11, emphasis in original.Google Scholar
  31. 53.
    For a comprehensive linguistic analysis of the political speech of the “extreme” Left of the period, see Elizaveta Liphardt, “Aporien der Gerechtigkeit: Politische Rede der extremen Linken in Deutschland und Russland zwischen 1914 und 1919” (Dissertation, Tübingen, 2005).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 54.
    Ludwig Rubiner, “Die Erneuerung” (originally published 1918/19) in idem, Kunstler bauen Barrikaden: Texte und Manifeste 1908–1919, ed. Wolfgang Haug (Darmstadt, 1988), 194.Google Scholar
  33. 55.
    For one of the more reflective contemporary critiques of Expressionist individualism described in terms of the pervasive “Ich,” see Wilhelm Worringer, “Kritische Gedanken zur neuen Kunst” (1919) in his Fragen und Gegenfragen: Schriften zum Kunstproblem (München 1956), 86–105.Google Scholar
  34. 56.
    Raoul Hausmann, “Der deutsche Spiesser ärgert sich,” Der Dada no. 2 (1919): 2. The “prophet” figure was a long-standing staple of Expressionist art from Emil Nolde to Karl Schmidt-Rottluff to Ernst Barlach and beyond. There was a surfeit of right-wing “prophecies” in and around 1919 in Germany too. See Jost Hermand, Der alte Traum vom neuen Reich: Völkische Utopien und Nationalsozialismus (Frankfurt, 1988), 103–7.Google Scholar
  35. 59.
    Wieland Hertzfelde, John Heartfield: Leben und Werk (Dresden, 1971), 25, my emphasis.Google Scholar
  36. 63.
    Magnus Zeller, “Ein Maler zwischen 30 und 40,” Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (January 1, 1926), reprinted in Magnus Zeller: Entrückung und Aufruhr, ed. Dominick Bartmann (Berlin, 2002), 48.Google Scholar
  37. 65.
    On these features in international Dada and more widely, see David Hopkins, Dada’s Boys: Masculinity after Duchamp (New Haven, 2007).Google Scholar
  38. 66.
    Raoul Hausmann, “Eine Flutwelle von Streben nach künstlerischer Kultur geht durch die teutonische Lande,” typescript of May 1, 1920, reprinted in Scharfrichter der bürgerlichen Seele: Raoul Hausmann in Berlin 1900–1933, ed. Eva Züchner (Ostfildern, 1998), 103–5.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John Alexander Williams 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Debbie Lewer

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations