In December 1918, a new artists' association was formed, stating in a manifesto that “(in) the conviction that political upheaval must be used to liberate art from decades of paternalism, a circle of uniformly minded artists and art lovers has come together in Berlin.”1 The group included well-known architects, sculptors and painters, including Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut and Lyonel Feininger, and had given their association the programmatic name Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers council for art) or AfK—consciously making a connection to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that had emerged during the November Revolution. Politically the AfK stood for a break with the old Wilhelminian traditions and institutions, demanding the dissolution of the royal academies and the removal of all war memorials. At the same time, the group wanted to create new art and architecture for the people. They regarded the “joint elaboration of a comprehensive utopian building project” as the “most important task of the near future.“2
The Arbeitsrat für Kunst is just one example of the many artists’ associations and intellectual groups that emerged across Europe towards the end of the First World War.3 At that time many countries of the old continent were shaken by mass strikes and even revolutionary movements.4 These developments were frequently accompanied by what might be termed a social and cultural awakening, one in which artists’ associations also participated. They stood up for the ideals of the new democratic societies being formed in the wake of World War One’s conclusion and supported the corresponding political movements. In Germany, both the “November Group” and the Political Council of Spiritual Workers (Politischer Rat geistiger Arbeiter)5 were founded at nearly the same time as the AfK, as was De Stijl in the Netherlands. After the October Revolution of 1917, numerous artists’ associations also emerged in Russia. Here, artists of the avant-garde elected to put their artistic efforts in the service of a new Soviet society. Meanwhile, architects in Vienna supported the emerging settler movement, which, due to the severe shortage of housing, occupied vacant parcels of land, building simple dwellings.6 How can the Arbeitsrat für Kunst be located in these developments? The group only existed from 1918 to 1921. What role did it play in the early years of the young Weimar Republic and how did the group distinguish itself from art created during the Empire? Which political forces did it orient itself around? How was it influenced by artistic reform movements from abroad?
These questions will be answered in what follows, in which the group’s references to the Russian avant-garde will also be highlighted. In this way, a sketch-like representation will emerge of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst, a group which has received far too little attention from art historians.