August Sander, “The Painter Otto Dix and His Wife Martha” (1925) (all photos AX Mina/Hyperallergic)

COPENHAGEN — There’s a menace at the heart of The Cold Gaze—Germany in the 1920s, an expansive exhibition about New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. With 600 artworks and an exhibition within the exhibition of August Sander’s photography, it offers a rich view into Germany’s Weimar Republic, from 1918 to 1933, the period between World War I and the rise of the Nazi Party.

That menace finds itself in the form of a poem by Joachim Ringelnatz:

The Nail File

I’ll die of boredom here
Thought the nail file
Over lunch.
And seeming-thoughtlessly
Set to work on a finger nail
Over lunch!
Screamed a silver fork: “You are
My dear lady, in company!”

I sat with the poem while music of the era played in a listening booth. I often associate the Weimar Republic with a hip, lively Berlin whose echoes we can feel once more. Jazz Age music by Lotte Lenya and the Bernard Etté Jazz Symphony Orchestra piped through the booth, clearly influenced by American pop rhythms from the time. Just next to the booth were photos from Berlin in Licht (Berlin’s Alight), a 1928 festival of light sponsored by the city’s gas and electric companies to showcase Berlin’s cultural splendor.

But I couldn’t shake the images in my mind from an exhibition section called “The Downside,” focused on the underbelly of capitalism. In contrast to the lively bars in Berlin’s city center, Hans Baluschek’s painting “Summer Evening” features working class families outside the city enjoying the summer night on uneven patches of grass next to block apartments. Oskar Nerlinger’s “To Work” has the epic sweeps of art deco design, but it depicts anonymous factory workers crossing a bridge to work. And in George Grosz’s “Blast Furnace,” one worker is consumed by the flames of the angry furnace.

Carl Grossberg, “Avus Berlin” (1928)

Organized with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, The Cold Gaze encompasses two exhibitions: one, a look at the broad New Objectivity movement in Germany, and the other, a collection of 200 photographs from August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, a monumental set of portraits across German society. Photos, paintings, drawings, film, theater, and poetry all come together to offer a rich view into both creative production and daily life in the era, with its glamour and its grotesquerie. 

“New Objectivity,” the exhibition text notes, “is less a clearly defined movement than a new way of looking at the world with a cold, exacting gaze. In a society marked by violent upheaval, the movement’s artists strive to capture modern everyday living, representing the workaday life of ordinary people in a realistic, sober style often stripped of sentiment.” 

Otto Dix, “Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden” (1926)

One of the show’s first, and most striking, paintings effectively captures the cold gaze: Otto Dix’s “Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden” depicts von Harden with a plaid dress, one sagging stocking, short hair, a martini glass, and a cigarette. For Dix, von Harden was a model of Die Neue Frau, the New Woman. Having won the right to vote in 1918 and taken jobs held by men while the men were at war, the New Woman was independent, active, and excited about new technology.

Die Neue Frau and her cold gaze feature in works like Christian Schad’s portrait of a cool, confident Anna Gabbioneta, a German painter and photographer living in Vienna. She stares directly at the viewer, the tie on her blouse undone. Karl Hubbuch’s “Twice Hilde II” shows his wife, Hilde Isai, a photographer, in a various poses that represent different sides of her — from sitting on a modern chair designed by Marcel Breuer to standing tall and confident in her underwear while holding a long cigarette. 

Gerd Arntz, “Twelve Houses of Our Time” (1927)

Artists like Kate Diehn-Bitt, who painted herself with short hair and a polo shirt, and Jeanne Mammen, whose portrait of dancer Valeska Gert could be a manic pixie dream girl in the 1980s, represented the emergent gender fluidity of the time. One of cinema’s first lesbian kisses appears in 1931’s Girls in Uniform by Carl Froelich and Leontine Sagan, while Herbert Hoffmann and Rudolf Schlichter capture queer nightlife, from the precursors to modern drag and ball culture to a lively lesbian bar. Alongside these images of gender liberation is a disturbing collection of women’s tortured, maimed bodies in art, illustrating the wave of Lustmord, or femicides, that arose during this time in both art and life

If portraits bring us briefly into the world of their subjects, isotopes zoom us outward, standardizing and systematizing people and lived experiences. An acronym of International System of Typographic Picture Education, Isotypes were developed by husband and wife Otto Neurath and Marie Reidemeister, and Gerd Arntz, and aimed to show statistical data clearly. 

Mundaneum Wein’s “Structure of the Society” is a set of isotypes that demonstrate how different classes work and dress with clean lines and silhouettes. Gerd Arntz’s “Twelve Houses of the Time” takes this sharp iconography to depict the stark class distinctions of capitalism. In one illustration, the spotlight shines on athletes on a field and well-to-do spectators in the front rows, while those further up in the stands are cast deeper into shadow and anomie the higher up they sit.

Mechanization features heavily throughout the show, highlighting the era’s excitement about technology. An installation presents the Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky to be a more efficient kitchen workspace based on data analysis. Paul Wolff’s silent film shows the logic and workflows of the kitchen, which was separated from the living room for hygiene reasons. 

Jeanne Mammen, “Valeska Gert” (1928–29)

“Big Zep,” a collection of 300 photographs of zeppelins, captures the optimism around this new flying technology with works by amateur photographers. Fritz Schüler’s “Man as Industrial Palace” reads like a celebration of mechanics. Oxygen goes in, carbon goes out, and the liver and stomach in the chest cavity process the stuff in between like a factory.

It’s tempting to compare the gender-norm-shattering liveliness and techno-optimism of the Weimar Republic with the present day, especially as so much of this same energy is again centered in Berlin. The works in The Cold Gaze are anything but objective. Rather, they highlight very specific politics and points of view, whether excitement about the future of tech, fears around the renegotiation of gender, or concern about the rights of the working class. The very idea of objectivity is a capitalist pursuit, one born of the notion that subjectivity and personhood can be discarded.

Amid this already extensive exhibition is August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, 200 works from his epic photographic project documenting people across Germany’s socioeconomic hierarchy. Sander looks at seven categories — the Farmer, the Skilled Tradesman, the Woman, Classes and Professions, the Artists, the City, and the Last People — in an effort to portray people from each stratum with dignity. 

This latter goal succeeds in its comprehensiveness, showing a stunning range of people equally — the 20th-century version of Zoom boxes sized the same for both bosses and workers. But the project fails to offer dignity to the elderly and people with disabilities in a section that Sander titles the Last People (even the exhibition text points out that the title and positioning “remain unsettling”).

Carl Froelich, Leontine Sagan, still from Girls in Uniform (1931)

The sheer range is an important historical and artistic document of the time, and Sander went on to influence American photographers like Diane Arbus and Walker Evans. As quoted in the introductory exhibition’s text, Sander writes that the project “was nothing other than an avowal of faith in photography as a global language, and an attempt to paint a physiognomic portrait of the German people.” In the context of the show, his monumental work brings a human face to the panorama of societal changes and shifts within the larger exhibition. 

Without losing sight of their subject matter, both The Cold Gaze and August Sander make it impossible to ignore the cultural through lines of Weimar to our contemporary hopes and anxieties. Today, artificial intelligence, robotics, and clean user experiences all exist in parallel to a vibrant queerness on one hand and rising anti-democratic attitudes on the other.

The way Sander’s work is organized, each sitter has a role: they are writers, politicians, farmers, and nurses, with no further backstory. It’s here that I remember the poem of the nail file and silver fork, each with its own purpose, each lacking a sense of meaning when unable to fulfill that purpose. I remember that many scholars think boredom is a symptom of industrialization and modernity, where time is measured and expected to be filled.

There, perhaps, lies the menace of the cold gaze. Modern capital offers all the glittering glamour of Berlin nights so long as we don’t pay too close attention to the labor and extraction that make it possible. The left, the right, the queers, the normies, the classists, and the class conscious — the Weimar Republic came to an end, as did the rule of those who came after. A century later, the central tensions of The Cold Gaze continue.

Fritz Schüler, “Man as Industrial Palace” (1926)
Rudolf Schlichter, “Ladies’ Pub” (c. 1925)
August Sander, “Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne” (1931, printed c. 1960)

The Cold Gaze and August Sander continue at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Gl Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebæk, Copenhagen, Denmark) through February 19. The exhibition was organized by the Centre Pompidou and curated by Angela Lampe, curator at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, and Florian Ebner, curator of photographic collections, Centre Pompidou. An accompanying catalogue will be published on March 28.

AX Mina

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work...