In November 1918, World War I ended with the military defeat of Germany, and a political revolution led to the creation of Germany's first democracy, the Weimar Republic, in 1919. During the immediate postwar period, many artists became politically engaged, hoping that a new, more liberal and open society might at last be at hand. But instability plagued the new republic, leading to violence, extremism, and a feeling of anarchy and fear.
The war had killed two million German soldiers and wounded four million others, and amputees were a standard sight on city streets. Soaring inflation and unemployment crippled the Germany economy for several years, fomenting public discontent. Artists including Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz responded by creating prints and posters that directly addressed the new social and political challenges. For them and other artists, the starkness of black-and-white printmaking provided the most appropriate means for social or political commentary.
Pechstein designed the cover of this pamphlet and wrote an essay for it, a call "to all artists" to participate in Germany's new socialist government in 1919. He hoped the new republic would establish a productive role for artists.
Pechstein, one of the most politically engaged artists of the early postwar period, made this poster to advertise the short-lived journal An die Laterne (To the lamp post), which promoted the incumbent Social Democratic Party. Its image of clenched-fisted, flag-carrying protestors—probably communists—marching past a man hanged from a lamppost was a warning against the mob violence and anarchy that threatened to destabilize the fledgling Weimar Republic.
This image of a monstrously huge Death figure terrorizing the city streets was meant to caution against the damage that strikes and work stoppages could do to the economy and to people's livelihood in the fragile and volatile new republic.
On this print, created in the wake of Germany's discordant November Revolution, Kokoschka parodies the slogan of the French Revolution, changing "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" to "Liberty, Equality, Fratricide."
This poster featuring a terrifying Death figure reflected a common fear in the turbulent aftermath of World War I in Germany—that the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia might be replicated in Germany.
Kollwitz depicts workers mourning Karl Liebknecht, the socialist leader who was brutally murdered by right-ring paramilitary forces in Berlin in January 1919. She based this woodcut on sketches she made of Liebknecht's corpse in the mortuary.
In the harsh glare of the streetlamps, Beckmann encounters a disfigured soldier. Beckmann's gesture toward home contrasts starkly with the stumpy remains of the veteran's arm. Beckmann inserts other common sights from the postwar streets into the background: two veterans hobbling along and a lewdly gesturing prostitute.
Patriotic exhortations can no longer rouse disillusioned veterans from their stupor. In the stale air of a cramped club they sing, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles." Beckmann noted the identity of the song, which voiced the desire for a united Germany, on a trial proof. It was a hopeful—or perhaps ironic—choice amid the fractured political environment in early 1919.
This print chronicles the desperation of "the last ones": cornered in an attic, a motley assortment of revolutionaries wages a final battle. Beckmann, seen from behind, mans the machine gun himself. During his visit to Berlin in March 1919, there was violent street fighting; this scene might also refer to the bloody, failed left-wing uprising two months earlier.
Grosz contrasts the wildly divergent experiences of the rich and poor in this single print. In the early morning light, the toiling classes embark on another long day in the factories. Meanwhile, for the capitalists and profiteers of Germany's new economy, the pleasures of a brothel do not end with the ringing of the factory bell.
Against the backdrop of smoking factories, an army of workers marches off to another day of labor. Grosz humanizes the ranks of the working class—whose identities as individuals with unique needs and desires were often subsumed into an undifferentiated mass—and sympathetically renders each man with his own distinctive gait and physiognomy.
This woodcut shows the sorrow of parents who, like Kollwitz herself, lost a child to World War I. The two figures fuse together into a hulking, solid mass. She noted in her diary, "Pain is completely dark." She reworked this print many times in order to capture the unbearable suffering caused by the war.
Kollwitz first developed this frightening image of Death, who randomly snatches children for no apparent reason, while working on her 1920 poster Vienna Is Dying! Save Its Children!, a plea to help save that city from devastating food shortages. She remained a committed advocate for women, children, and the dispossessed throughout her career.
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