The Scope of Early Twentieth-Century German Industrial Art: Works in the Grohmann Museum of Art

Patrick Jung's picture

Patrick J. Jung

Professor of History

Milwaukee School of Engineering

Milwaukee, Wisconsin


James R. Kieselburg

Executive Director

Grohmann Museum

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Despite the vast social and economic changes the Industrial Revolution unleashed upon Europe, artists in the nineteenth century were initially slow to understand the potential of the industrial image.  Klaus Herding, a scholar of German industrial art, rightly asks, “Why did the visual arts not spontaneously turn to large-scale industry as a new subject?  Why did the so-called artistic ‘fathers’ of the twentieth century—Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat—hardly deal with industry…?  Why did the so-called Materialist or Socialist painters, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, not depict factory workers but instead focused upon peasants and rural laborers?”1

Eventually, by the last decades of the nineteenth century, European artists responded to the new aesthetic of the Industrial Age, particularly in German painters.  Germany industrialized later than Great Britain but at a much faster pace; this made the phenomenon of industrialization a more dramatic event in Germany.  France, on the other hand, industrialized more slowly and less thoroughly than either Great Britain or Germany.2  Thus, German artists, to a greater degree than their European counterparts, were drawn to these new subjects: the factory, the steel mill, the blast furnace, the railroad, and the other technological wonders of the time.  By the first decade of the twentieth century, a rather significant body of artistic work existed.  In 1912, the city of Essen hosted the first exhibition of industrial art in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Krupp Steelworks, the largest industrial firm in the city.  Undoubtedly, the most prominent and important of the paintings at the Essen exhibition was Eisenwalzwerk (Iron Rolling Mill), painted by Adolph Menzel between 1872 and 1875.3  This painting, more so than any other, influenced the genesis and development of German industrial art for the next seven decades.

The Grohmann Museum on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has over 1300 works of art that depict human labor and industry through the ages. The Grohmann Museum is also fortunate to have many excellent examples of German industrial art from the age of Menzel to the final, tragic year of World War II in 1945.  A growing body of scholarly works on German industrial art places these various works into defined social, economic, political, and cultural contexts.4  Germany’s industrialization was not only rapid and dramatic, but it also largely occurred after the unification of the various German-speaking principalities into a unified German nation state in 1871.  The unification of Germany produced a politically centralized and militarily powerful country that had a strong sense of national identity.  While the Industrial Revolution began in Germany before 1871, unification resulted in an even more rapid industrial expansion.  Germany’s burgeoning industrial economy after 1871 fulfilled Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s prophecy that the nation would become a great power by the marriage of “iron and rye.”5

Menzel’s Eisenwalzwerk (Ill. 1) stands as one of the first and definitely the most influential visual representations of Germany’s industrial age.  In fact, many art historians consider it one of his greatest works among a corpus that includes many famous paintings.  What makes the painting unique is the dramatic sense of Realism in the nineteenth-century sense of the term.  Realism is usually associated with French painter Gustave Courbet, who rejected the often-idealized themes of academic art and focused instead upon rural laborers and other common people.  He sought to show them in a manner that was often dirty, gritty, and even disturbing.  What made Menzel unique was his desire to depict the industrial worker.  Indeed, Menzel was the greatest of German Realist painters, and his decision to depict the hot, dangerous world of the steel workers at the Königshütte iron and steel works in the German province of Silesia was the most revolutionary aspect of Eisenwalzwerk.6

Ill. 1. Hans Dieter Tylle, Eisenwalzwerk (Iron-Rolling Mill), reproduction of the original painting by Adolph Menzel, oil on canvas, 62 ½ x 100 ¼ in., 2004. Collection of the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

While Menzel was not the first German artist to depict workers in an industrial setting, he was the first to depict them authentically.  In other words, he sought to illustrate the difficult conditions in which they labored as well as their determination and fortitude despite their grueling circumstances.  Earlier artists, if they produced industrial depictions at all, tended to emphasize the great machines in the factory; the workers served only to narrate the work processes of which the machines were a part.  The conditions in which they labored were often idealized and somewhat sterile.  In Eisenwalzwerk, the workers are not mere props that define the functions of the machines.  Instead, they are the central subjects of the piece. The painting itself is large with a height 62.2 inches and width of 100 inches.  In the center foreground, a team of men guides a white-hot ingot of steel to a rolling machine where it will be shaped into a locomotive rail.  Another team prepares to receive the piece and move it to the next set of rollers for further processing.  The workers and the rolling machines recede toward the upper left of the painting where a well-dressed supervisor is barely visible near a glowing puddling furnace that produces the steel ingots.  To the left of the rolling machines, half-naked workers washing up indicate a shift change has taken place.  In the right foreground, a young woman brings her exhausted husband lunch during a well-earned break.  The smoke and steam hover over the workers and obscure the distant reaches of the workplace at the top of the painting.7

However, if Menzel depicted the German industrial worker with a stark authenticity, he also glorified the steel mill and factory as symbols of German national strength in Eisenwalzwerk.  Indeed, the monumentality of the new industrial establishments during his lifetime presented a formidable visual expression of the national pride Germans possessed toward their newly unified and powerful country.  This theme resonated particularly with the German middle class, which constituted the most important segment of the German art market.8

These two themes—authentic depictions of industrial workers, and industry as a symbol of German national strength—are found in many works in the Grohmann Museum.  For example, Arthur Kampf produced a mural in 1900 titled Rolling Mill for the town hall of Aachen, Germany that is indicative of the desire to represent authentically the experience of German industrial workers in the manner of Menzel’s Eisenwalzwerk.  In fact, Menzel’s Eisenwalzwerk influenced Kampf to a significant degree.  Like Menzel, Kampf made the workers the main subjects of his paintings and depicted the dangerous and uncomfortable conditions in which they labored.  In contrast to Menzel, Kampf emphasized the masculine nature of industrial work through the half-clad, muscular, writhing bodies of the workers as they performed their difficult tasks.  Unfortunately, Kampf’s mural was destroyed during World War II.  Josef Jünger reproduced a detail of this mural titled Workers Dragging a Red-Hot Iron Piece (ca. 1920) (Ill. 2) that is now in the Grohmann Museum collection.  In this painting, the workers, bare from the waist up, turn away from a slab of hot metal and its searing, unbearable heat.  Willy Nus’s Transporting Large Heated Workpiece (ca. 1910) (Ill. 3) similarly depicts a team of men bathed in the intense heat of a huge, glowing hexagonal steel beam.  The workers struggle to move the massive piece on a cart amid the din and smoke of a foundry.  Their muscles strain and their bodies contort to move the beam to a steam-powered hammer for further fabrication.  Like Menzel’s workers, they endure the difficult conditions in the foundry; nevertheless, they exude sense of strength and dignity.9

Ill. 2. Josef Jünger, Workers Dragging a Red-Hot lron Piece, (after Arthur Kampf), oil on canvas, 31 x 23 in., ca. 1920. Collection of the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Ill. 3. Willy Nus, Transporting Large Heated Workpiece, oil on canvas, 31 ½ x 47 in., ca. 1910. Collection of the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The “heroic” theme of industry as an engine and source of national pride and power is evident in a great number of German industrial paintings produced between the 1870s and 1945.  The worker was one source of this heroic theme; the sites of work—the steel mill, the blast furnace, and the factory—were another.  By the early twentieth century, these great industrial enterprises were far greater in size and scope than those depicted thirty years earlier by Menzel.  The mammoth dimensions of these concerns captivated many German painters whose works of art sought emphasize their sublime magnitude.10  Representative of this approach is Fritz Gärtner, who often juxtaposed the earlier agricultural economy against the modern, industrial Germany of the present.  This is particularly evident in Gärtner’s Fire and Grain Sheaves (ca. 1914) (Ill. 4), which shows the glow of massive blast furnaces illuminating the bundles of harvested wheat in the foreground.  The fires pierce the darkness of the night and radiate through the thick plumes of smoke that rise from the chimneys.  The viewer is immediately struck by the great size of the complex, the image of which reflects off the serene waters of the river.  A similar effect is achieved by Hans Kortengräber’s Thyssen’s Meiderich Steel Works by Night (Ill. 5), which depicts the Thyssen steel complex at Duisburg-Meiderich on the Rhine River.  In the middle of the painting, a blast furnace is tapped and releases an intense amount of heat and light that penetrates the smoke and steam.  The glow illuminates the night sky and provides a natural focal point for the viewer.  This dramatic effect emphasizes the great industrial power that Germany had harnessed through its industrial economy.11

Ill. 4. Fritz Gärtner, Fire and Grain Sheaves, oil on board, 27 ½ x 39 in., 1914. Collection of the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Ill. 5. Hans Kortengräber, Thyssen’s Meiderich Steel Works by Night, oil on board, 42 x 58 ½ in. Collection of the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

These two themes continued through the years before and after World War I, although new themes emerged in the late nineteenth century that gained momentum in the post-war era.  The labor movement and the rise of socialist ideologies influenced many artists, particularly Käthe Kollwitz and Hans Baluschek, who illustrated the plight of industrial workers who labored long, hard hours in dangerous factories and who lived in squalid conditions in German cities.  While artists like Menzel, Kampf, and Nus sought to depict the difficult labor of German industrial workers in an authentic manner, Kollwitz and Baluschek went further by capturing the misery that often accompanied the new industrial economy.  Indeed, where Menzel emphasized Realism in his work, artists such as Baluschek and Kollwitz went a step beyond with what became known as Social Realism in their sketches and paintings.  Rather than depicting the industrial worker with an air of dignity, Social Realists emphasized the exploitation of the working classes and their degradation due to class antagonisms.  Social Realism was not a style of art but rather a philosophy concerning the depiction of the human subjects in industrial society.  The relative freedom of the Weimar period from 1919 to 1933 allowed for the full expression of this theme.12

With the rise of Adolph Hitler and the National Socialist regime with its stridently anti-socialist and anti-communist ideology in 1933, Social Realism rapidly disappeared from German industrial art as a matter of state policy.  The regime declared artists such as Baluschek and Kollwitz as “entartete,” or “degenerate,” and forbid them from practicing their craft.  Moreover, the authenticity that Menzel so prized was sacrificed as well.  The Nazi regime took an intense interest in art and employed it as propaganda to reflect German national strength as well as the notion of German racial purity.  The cultural bureaucracy of the Third Reich did not invent the “heroic” image of German industry that it came to patronize after 1933; this theme had existed since the time of Menzel.  Artists continued to depict industrial sites as symbols of German power and technical ingenuity, a theme prized by the Nazi state.  The German worker, on the other hand, became more than simply a masculine and heroic figure; he evolved into a symbol of Aryan racial superiority, an idea absent in the works of Menzel and other German industrial artists before 1933.  Under the Third Reich, the German worker became almost mythological in stature; he was a new (and Nordic) Vulcan laboring at his forge for a new Germany.  The Nazi cultural bureaucracy saw little need in depicting the difficult conditions under which the German worker performed his heroic tasks; of greater concern was depicting the German worker as an idealized racial archetype.13

New subjects appeared during the Nazi era as well.  While familiar themes such as steel mills and factories remained in the repertoire of German industrial artists, the Nazi state also sought to enshrine new projects in the visual arts.  The Autobahn, in particular, came to symbolize the new, modern Germany.  In the 1930s, the government of the Third Reich began constructing the Autobahn, which often required massive bridges to span the valleys of Germany’s mountainous and hilly terrain.  The regime encouraged artists to record the building of the Autobahn through competitive exhibitions.  Typical of such works is Fritz Jacobsen’s Autobahn Bridge Construction (ca. 1937) (Ill. 6), which shows four massive stone pillars built to support the great steel frame of the Autobahn as it spans a wide mountain valley.  Significantly, no workers are visible due to the great distance Jacobsen employs in the painting to illustrate the bridge’s monumental size.  Erich Mercker’s Bridge Construction with Arches (ca. 1937) (Ill. 7) depicts the construction of the Rohrbach Bridge near Stuttgart in a similar manner that highlights the monumentality of the great concrete arches that rise almost two hundred feet above the valley floor.  The painting employs wide angles between the lines of perspective to emphasize the massive size of the bridge.  The workers are present but appear as almost indiscernible smudges of paint that are present only to emphasize the monumentality of the bridge.14

Ill. 6. Fritz Jacobsen, Autobahn Bridge Construction, oil on board, 31 x 42 in., ca. 1937. Collection of the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Ill. 7. Erich Mercker, Bridge Construction with Arches, oil on canvas, 23 ¾ x 31 ½ in., ca. 1937. Collection of the Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

These images are only a small sample of the many works by German industrial artists in the Grohmann Museum, but they aptly illustrate the scope and sweep of German industrial art from the age of Menzel in the 1870s to the end of World War II.  Significantly, the heroic nature of German industry that prevailed as one of the principal themes during these decades was less in evidence after 1945.  The association of this theme with the government of the Third Reich did much to diminish it in the eyes of both East and West Germans after World War II.  Menzel’s goal of capturing the authentic experience of the German worker remained an abiding theme, particularly in West Germany, after the war.  Nevertheless, the influence of artists such as Baluschek and Kollwitz remained strong as well, and Social Realism once again came into vogue for those artists who sought to capture the plight of the industrial worker.  In East Germany, Socialist Realism—imported from the Soviet Union—celebrated the supposed achievements of communist society, and, like the art of the Third Reich, largely served as propaganda for a dictatorial regime.15  Thus, the influence of Menzel and others faded after 1945 in both Germanys.

Still, the seventy years that separated the completion of his Eisenwalzwerk in 1875 and the end of World War II in 1945 produced a uniquely German style of industrial art that is increasingly attracting the attention of a growing number of art historians.  Many of the artists who produced such works remained under-researched, in large part because art historians before the 1990s assumed their work was little more than German nationalist propaganda that served to enhance the legitimacy of the Kaiserreich of the Wilhelmine period and particularly the later Nazi regime.16  Better research has emerged through a body of scholarly works produced in the last three decades that illustrates these artists responded to the unique aesthetic of Germany’s emerging industrial society more so than any state direction or intervention.17  The Grohmann Museum, with one of the finest collections of German industrial art in the world, stands among those institutions that are in the forefront of this growing and fascinating area of art historical research.


1. Klaus Herding, “Die Industrie als ‘zweite Schöpfung’,” in Sabine Beneke and Hans Ottomeyer, eds., Die zweite Schöpfung: Bilder der Industriellen Welt vom 18. Jahrhundert bis die Gegenwart (Berlin, Germany: Deutsches Historisches Museum, 2002), 10 (translation by the author).

2. Peter N. Stearns, The Industrial Revolution in World History, 4th ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2013), 21-53.

3. Sabine Beneke and Hans Ottomeyer, “Zur Austellung,” in Die zweite Schöpfung, 8; Die Industrie in der bildenden Kunst: Ausstellung vom 23. Juni bis 18. August 1912 im Kunstmuseum der Stadt Essen (Essen, Germany: Freudebeuf und Koenen, 1912), 1, 31.

4. For the most significant works, see Beneke and Ottomeyer, Die zweite Schöpfung, passim; LVR Industriemuseum, ed., Feuerländer-Regions of Vulcan: Malerei um Kohle und Stahl (Münster, Germany: Aschendorff Verlag, 2010); Jennifer Schlecking, Reflexion und Verklärung: Industrieller Fortschritt und gesellschaftliche Realität in der offiziellen Malerei des deutschen Kaiserreichs der 1870er bis 1890er Jahre (Hamburg, Germany: Verlag Dr. Kovač, 2016).

5. Jürgen Kocka, Industrial Culture and Bourgeois Society: Business, Labor, and Bureaucracy in Modern Germany (New York: Berghahn Books, 1999), 73-77; Schlecking, Reflexion und Verklärung, 41, 81-93.

6. Michael Fried, Menzel's Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), 109-124; Françoise Forster-Hahn, “Ethos und Eros: Adolph Menzels ‘Eisenwalzwerk’ und ‘Atelierwand’,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 41 (1999): 143-148; Schlecking, Reflexion und Verklärung, 95-102, 131-137.

7. Klaus Türk, “Menzels ‘Eisenwalzwerk’: Realismus zwischen alter und neuer Mythologie,” in Feuerländer-Regions of Vulcan, 471-479.

8. Schlecking, Reflexion und Verklärung, 134-143; Klaus Türk, “Epochen des Arbeitsbildes vom Merkantilismus bis zum Zweiten Weltkrieg,” in Feuerländer-Regions of Vulcan, 378-381.

9. Türk, “Menzels ‘Eisenwalzwerk’,” 479-480; Klaus Türk, Man at Work: 400 Years in Paintings and Bronzes (Milwaukee, Wisc.: MSOE Press, 2003), 196, 217.

10. For an excellent discussion of the expansion of one of these enterprises during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Harold James, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), 97-103.  For German artists who expressed these sentiments, see Paul Weiglin, “Die Industrie in der Kunst: Zu dem Gemälde ‘Riesen der Arbeit’ von Erich Mercker,” Daheim 4 (November 4, 1937): 9; “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde: Leonhard Sandrock, Franz Gerwin, Günther Domnich, Erich Mercker und Richard Gessner erzählen von sich und ihrer Arbeit,” Das Werk: Monatsschrift der Vereinigte Stahlwerke Aktiengesellschaft 10 (October 1940): 199-200.

11. Türk, Man at Work, 259, 264.

12. W. L. Guttsman, Art for the Workers: Ideology and the Visual Arts in Weimar Germany (Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 1997), 29, 32, 38, 106-118, 213; Thomas Schleper, “Roter Faden durch die Ausstellung,” in Feuerländer-Regions of Vulcan, 77-88; Elizabeth Prelinger, Käthe Kollwitz (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1992), 13-89, 182; Nancy Frazier, The Penguin Concise Dictionary of Art History (New York: Penguin, 2000), 641; Jonathan Harris, Art History: The Key Concepts (New York: Routledge: 2006), 293-295.

13. Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2004), 151-222; Peter Schirmbeck, “Darstellung der Arbeit,” in G. Bussmann, ed., Kunst im 3. Reich: Dokumente der Unterwerfung (Frankfurt, Germany: Frankfurt Kunstverein, 1975), 162-181; Eric Michaud, The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, Janet Lloyd, trans. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004), 25, 52, 95-98, 117.

14. Patrick J. Jung and Carma M. Stahnke, Erich Mercker and Technical Subjects: A Landscape and Industrial Artist in Twentieth-Century Germany (Milwaukee, Wisc.: MSOE Press, 2014), 27-28, 61-64, 149; Türk, Man at Work, 308.

15. Lebensraum Arbeitswelt: Künstlerische Darstellung aus der Sammlung der Deutsch Arbeitsschutzaustellung (Dortmund, Germany: Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz, 1990), 18, 20, 25, 26, 33, and passim; Türk, Man at Work, 12-29; Türk, “Epochen des Arbeitsbildes,” 383.

16. For examples, see Manuela Hoelterhoff, “Art of the Third Reich: Documents of Oppression.” Artforum 14 (December 1975): 55-61; Peter Schirmbeck, “Zur Industrie- und Arbeitsdarstellung in der NS-Kunst: Typische Merkmale, Unterdrückung und Weiterführung von Traditionen,” in Berthold Hinz, et al., eds., Dekoration der Gewalt: Kunst und Medien im Faschismus (Giessen, Germany: Anabas Verlag Kämpf, 1979), 61-74; and Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, Robert and Rita Kimber, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 17-18, 83, 149.  For analysis, see Schlecking, Reflexion und Verklärung, 12-69; and Christian Fuhrmeister, “Kunst im Nationalsozialismus: Rezeptionsgeschichte, Forschungsstand, Perspektiven,” in Holger Germann and Stefann Goch, eds., Künstler und Kunst im Nationalsozialismus: Eine Diskussion um die Gelsenkirchener Künstlersiedlung Halfmannshof (Essen, Germany: Klartext Verlag, 2013), 11-20.

17. For examples, see Lars U. Scholl, Der Industriemaler Otto Bollhagen, 1861-1924 (Herford, Germany: Koehler Verlagsgesellschaft, 1992), 11-32; Dorothy von Hülsen, Leonhard Sandrock, 1867-1945: Ausgewählte Werke aus öffentlichen und privat Besitz (Verden Aller, Germany: Galerie Pro Art, 1994), 7-13, 43-53; Klaus Ollinger, Kohle und Stahl: Leben und Werk der Industriemalerin Ria Picco-Rückert (Merzig, Germany: Merziger Druckerei & Verlag, 2007), 19-35; Jung and Stahnke, Erich Mercker, xii, 1-32; Schlecking, Reflexion und Verklärung, 12-69.