Sometime during 1925 or 1926, the painter Otto Dix (1891-1961) and his wife Martha sat for a photographic portrait by August Sander (1876-1963). Here, face to face, were two of Germany’s most significant artists at the peak of their powers. It’s one of the most intriguing meetings in modern art: did they discuss Weimar politics or the relative merits of their mediums?
They have been reunited in “Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933”, an exhilarating show at Tate Liverpool, which actually compromises a pair of exhibitions: “Artist Rooms: August Sander” and “Otto Dix: The Evil Eye”. Together, they are a window into the soul of a nation as it recovered from humiliation and economic strife after world war one, then succumbed to the terrible lure of the Nazi party.
From 1910 to the mid-1950s, Sander worked on “People of the Twentieth Century”, a gargantuan collection of portraits that aimed to depict every corner of German society. Classified into 45 portfolios with titles like “Farming Types”, “The Artist” and “Travelling People”, it is an invaluable document of early 20th-century German life. The portraits, whose subjects range from a working-class student to the composer Richard Strauss, are presented in chronological order, hemmed in by an exhaustive timeline hand-painted on the gallery walls.
After harrowing experiences in the first world war (depicted in his etching series from 1924, “The War”), Otto Dix was one of several major painters who abandoned fantastical expressionism for a more realistic mode. Dubbed “New Objectivity”, this movement prioritised lifelike portraiture and traditional techniques while exaggerating the absurdities and deformities of its subjects. “Otto Dix: The Evil Eye” focuses on the oil paintings, watercolours and etchings Dix made during in his time in Dusseldorf between 1922 and 1925. His work can be at once comic and tragic, humane and cruel, lifelike and bizarre. After Sander’s meticulous naturalism, the effect is like entering a hall of mirrors.
August Sander, “The Painter Otto Dix and His Wife Martha” (1925-26)
Martha – who, after a torrid affair, had left her husband for Dix – is the focus, staring assertively at the camera. The slickly groomed Dix gazes at her, bewitched by her confidence. Martha’s dominance is perhaps why Sander placed this image in “The Woman” category, rather than “The Artist”. The title was added later: Sander never named his subjects, giving humble workers the same weight as famous cultural figures.
Otto Dix, “Portrait of the Photographer Hugo Erfurth with Dog” (1926)
Hugo Erfurth was one of the most acclaimed photographers of the Weimar Republic, known for his confrontational head-and-shoulders shots of luminaries. He met the younger Dix in 1920, and the pair depicted each other in a series of portraits. Dix’s painting from 1926 shows Erfurth with his German shepherd, Ajax, giving an almost equal prominence to man and beast. Although it lacks the burlesque distortions of the painter’s more exaggerated work, Dix doesn’t flatter. He shows the photographer as a weary, slouched figure with squinting eyes.
Dix’s contemporary George Grosz used to teasingly refer to Dix as “Otto Hans Baldung Dix”, fusing his name with one of the German Renaissance’s most gifted portraitists. Watching Dix work, said Grosz, was like watching an Old Master. Dix revived the Renaissance technique of painting on panel with egg tempera, before supplementing it with a layer of oil paint. Here, the heavy, brocaded curtain, the cerulean background and even Erfurth’s profile pose all allude to conventions of the 15th century.
August Sander, “Turkish Mousetrap Salesman” (1924-30)
This photograph, taken from Sander’s portfolio of “Travelling People”, reveals the underbelly of Weimar society. The salesman’s untidy hair and pockmarked skin indicate his poverty. His eyes, gazing into the middle distance, convey a life of hardship and disappointment.
Otto Dix, “Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin” (1927)
Dix had a complex, somewhat problematic, attitude towards women. His many paintings of prostitutes and brothels often border on the grotesque; some of them feature horrifying acts of violence. After being indicted for obscenity in 1923, he defended himself by claiming his work was a form of social criticism. That may have been true, but Dix’s paintings of women often invite voyeurism. The subject of this painting looks self-possessed and ready to pounce. But she is also a sex object – and, as suggested by her hyena-like hound, a scavenger. Her feline eyes and serpentine arm, as well as the leopard skin itself, exaggerate her bestial character. This uneasy combination of sensuality and menace was a familiar trope in Weimar culture, epitomised by characters such as Marlene Dietrich’s “Lola” in the film “The Blue Angel” (1924).
August Sander, “Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne” (1931)
After the publication of his book “Face of Our Time” (1929), Sander was at the peak of his professional career, and was commissioned by the Westdeutscher Rudfunk radio station to deliver a series of lectures on photography. There he photographed one of the employees. Modern audiences might see echoes of Sally Bowles, the singer in Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939) and its musical adaptation “Cabaret”, but this figure is eminently more respectable. With her assured pose, lit cigarette and cropped hairstyle, she serves as the archetype of a fashionable working woman.
Otto Dix, “Self-Portrait with Easel” (1926)
Dix was an inveterate self-portraitist, casting himself variously as Mars, a “Sexual Murderer” and a “target” in military uniform. It is rare to see him depicted as earnestly as he is in this painting, its dingy palette a departure from Dix’s usual vivid colours. He looks as though he’s been caught mid-act and isn’t too pleased about it. There’s a feigned discomfort, as if he resents his own lacerating gaze being turned on himself.
August Sander, “National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture” (c. 1938)
After the Nazis assumed power in 1933, Sander was barred from a major photography exhibition. His inclusive view of Germany was incompatible with the new government’s ideology. In 1934, authorities destroyed the printing plates and remaining stock of “Face of Our Time”, before banning it in 1936. His son Erich, a supporter of the Communist party, was imprisoned in 1934 and died suspiciously, just before he was due to be released.
Despite Sander’s personal, political and professional animosity towards the Nazis, he photographed a number of party officials. At the same time as he was accepting commissions from the Nazi party, Sander photographed Jewish people and members of other persecuted groups for his “Victims of Persecution” series.
Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 Tate Liverpool until October 15th