hausmann, the spirit of our time, 1920


In the years following WWI, German artist Raoul Hausmann’s disillusionment with the state of his country was reflected in his art. He was one of the leading members of the Berlin Dada movement, which was known for photomontage and assemblage. One of Hausmann’s most well known works is Spirit of Our Time. Finished in 1921, the piece is an assemblage of many common tools and devices on a wooden head. Spirit of Our Time is Hausmann’s metaphor for his fellow Germans during this time period.

Hausmann’s purpose is given away immediately by the title for the assemblage. The human form of the head captures what Hausmann believes is the essence of the people of his time.[1] The head is a wooden dummy’s head. It lacks expression or feeling. There are no memorable or special qualities. The head is symmetrical and simple. There are no pupils in the eyes, no ears, and no hair. The man has lost his uniqueness. This wooden dummy is what Hausmann saw as the typical man of his post WWI era. He is a very basic human; he lacks sophistication.

Quite unlike the beauty and complexity of past sculptures of the human form, Spirit of Our Time shows a different sort of man. The artwork confronts an issue that does not involve the anatomy of the human body, but an issue with the human mind. The head is not a realistic interpretation. Hausmann purposely chose a head which had a dull look that lacked expression. What is most noticeable, however, are the objects attached to the wood. The objects are common devices such as a ruler and parts of a typewriter and watch. They are devices of measurement and information. The tools attach to the wood like they are a part of the human head. The ruler curves down the forehead as if it no different from the skin. There are instruments stuck to the sides seemingly replacing the ears. The head has been transformed into its own form of instrument.

Hausmann implies that, like the assemblage, people have become slaves to the devices around them. They have become dependent on these things to make decisions. Hausmann was disillusioned with the lack of creativity and emotion: The human condition was losing what made it human. People were more like the wooden assemblage, unable to let anything into their minds, relying solely on tools and devices to survive. He created this piece to warn that the “spirit” of his time was not really a spirit at all. People had become cold and mechanical.

The reasons that Raoul Hausmann believed that the German society had lost its human spirit were likely a result of the country’s condition following World War I. The country was devastated after losing the war. Many Germans died in the war and countless more were crippled or injured. Because much of the fighting occurred in Germany, most of the country’s citizens had seen death firsthand. The war had taken the spirit out of the German people. This work was a criticism of the society that marched wholeheartedly into war but returned broken. Hausmann was depicting this depressing situation.

Spirit of Our Time captures the condition of the German man in the years following WWI. The wooden head is a metaphor for a society that was losing what made it special. It is unable to express feeling or to think individually. Hausmann wanted to encourage the country to think freely and break free from the restrictions of material items. He envisioned a German society that genuinely possessed spirit.



[1] Dietmar Elger, Dadaism (Los Angleles: Taschen, 2004), 38.

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