Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933

Artist Rooms: August Sander
The Evil Eye: Otto Dix
Tate Liverpool
£12, concessions £10
June 23rd – October 15th 2017

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

(Above painting – Otto Dix: Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin 1927)

The Writing’s on the Wall

This combined exhibition features the photographs of August Sander and the paintings and etchings of Otto Dix, against a timeline of political events in Germany’s inter-war period. The layout of the two exhibitions determines that you see the Sander portraits first; I would suggest a reversal: look at the Otto Dix work first because this makes chronological sense. Germany 1919 -1933 arose from the devastation of the war so strongly depicted in Dix’s etchings: Der Krieg.

But however you view this, the dramatic impact of black and white is inescapable, in both the Dix etchings and the Sander photographs. Although there was colour photography, for most people the striking and horrific images of World War I and World War II are monochrome. This separates them from our own life experiences and gives them an austere horror that we, from the relative detachment of our world-in-colour can witness, whilst maintaining some detachment.

The Otto Dix exhibition contains etchings, water colours and oil paintings. Compared with the tranquil experience of Sander’s dignified portraits, the often lurid palette of the Otto Dix paintings is a shock. His water-colours of the fetishist demi-monde are characterised by a crude expressionist style. Bright reds contrast with the queasy pallor of faces and bodies so explicitly revealed that there is a warning notice at the commencement of the exhibition. It’s difficult to decide which is the more shocking: the wound of the crime-scene vagina, or the haunting, dissolving expressions in some of the women’s faces. These portraits, with their moment of compassion, are what raises the work from the visceral caricature which we find elsewhere – in the portrayal of the sailors, for example.

By comparison, some of Dix’s oil-painted portraits seem leaden, weighed down with dense materiality, the thick paint over-worked to death. This isn’t to say that they are not compelling in their florid fleshiness, or their haunting eyes. Hypnotist Heinrich Stadelmann, painted in 1922, is held together by his suit, but mainly characterised by mesmeric blood-shot eyes: at once scary and scared. Then there’s a disturbing study of Karl Krall, his strange hour-glass figure emphasised by a brown fitted suit. There’s more: huge hands with pointed finger nails. I thought the best of the oil portraits was Working Class Boy (1920), which has the same austere power as the photographs of Sander.

Otto Dix, Assault Troops Advance under Gas 1924 © DACS 2017

But for me it was Der Krieg, the collection of 50 small etchings Dix did in 1924 of his experiences in World War I, which had the most impact of all his work displayed. Goya-like, these scenes of destruction, atrocity and terror have a cumulative tenacity. They are images caught and momentarily held in the livid light of an explosion, where blown-apart earth is indistinguishable from blown-apart bodies, where the helmeted, masked men are indistinguishable from decaying skulls, and the cross is barely discernible in the enveloping darkness. In one scene, a deranged woman, hair on end, holds her dead child; in another, we experience the tragi-comic immediacy of a man who has gambled away most of his clothes.

All is held in death’s wide mouth.

August Sander was a major German photographer of the 20s whose ambition was to “create a social atlas of Germany through portraits of people from all segments of society”. 144 photographs of his project, People of the 20th Century, are on exhibition in chronological order. Some of the sitters are famous but many are anonymous, named by occupational or social role and drawn from all professions and milieux. There’s a proud aviator in leather coat and head-hugging helmet; a Turkish mousetrap salesman; a Red Cross nurse; a Show-man and performing bear; an Arbitrator with assessing eyes and bow tie; a sister and her brother in charge of an elegant wheeled pushchair; a woman described as a “midget” and a woman designated according to her husband’s profession as “the architect’s wife”. There are also reminders of the recent war of: a widow and her two sons; a disabled ex-serviceman in a wheeled appliance, his few possessions occupying the space where his legs were, and steps behind him he will never be able to climb.

August Sander: Farmer’s Child 1919

I asked someone at the exhibition if there was an image that would stay with him. “Yes: the words; how rapidly Germany wanted to prepare for war again! Yet how ordinary everyone looks.” The words, grey as if fading, appear on the wall and they chart Germany’s rapid radicalisation through National Socialism. The political and economic events recorded by this writing on the wall would have huge impact on the people in the portraits who lived through them, and knowing this, the viewer sees not only the person but also feels the reverberations of state power on individual lives. The industrialist and the banker would have vital roles to play in rearmament and the war machine. Those engaged in rural jobs would be drawn through poverty to the cities and lose their connection with the land, and soon the young farmers would fight for the larger idea of the Fatherland.

The artists, writers, musicians and thinkers faced emigration or censorship. Philosopher Max Scheler, a supporter of democracy, was the first to speak of the United States of Europe in support of the League of Nations. He warned against Nazism and was concerned about the dangerous gap between power and “the mind”. (How this resonates with our current world stage!) Goebbels denounced Paul Hindemith, the violinist and composer, as an “atonal noisemaker”. Joseph Haubrich, a lawyer and art collector, had to hide his ’degenerate’ paintings from the Nazis. He married a Jewish doctor: Alice Gottschalk, which meant he was no longer allowed to practise his profession because of racial laws.

People regarded as being marginalised were categorised by Sander in language such as might interest a Eugenicist: The Last People/Idiots/the Sick, the Insane and Matter. Portraits in this section are particularly poignant: a corpse of an old woman, children born blind, casually housed circus workers photographed bare-armed against the tented trappings of their lives, and other types of travelling people: vagrants, Sinti and Roma. Between 220,000 and 500,000 Sinti and Roma were murdered by the Nazis along with the Jews. There is also a set of photographs of victims of persecution. Sander planned a portfolio of those forced to emigrate or who died in the holocaust as a “magnificent document for the Jewish people”. His own son died as a political prisoner.

Then there are portraits of blond young men, so smartly dressed, often in military-style uniforms, who would almost certainly end up in the Hitler Youth: the pride of the Master Race, and then the army.

Without exception, alongside their social and economic status, Sanders brought out the pride and the dignity of his sitters, whether they be a new woman, with cropped hair, smoking a cigarette, or the policeman with a foot-wide moustache. Even a beggar photographed against the iron bars of his poverty is dressed smartly.

What began as a chronicle of the spectrum of German society grew in relevance as events in Germany gathered pace. To the modern hind-sighted viewer, the matching of national events with the people on whom they would have an impact has a horrifying inevitability. These photographs of ordinary people are important tributes to individuals, but doubly significant because their times resonate with our own times of economic distress, with the attendant increase in fascism, elitism and racism, partly facilitated by bad political decisions and the passivity of ordinary folk. Dix’s war etchings also have a current relevance, as do his paintings showing the materialistic decadence of the Weimar Republic.

There’s still time to view this exhibition and it’s worth it.

Time Line: http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/112558

1 Comment

  1. Brilliant, engaging review. The authors confident understanding of art, art theory and art history is exhilarating. Imagery flowed before my eyes with her description.


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