Portraying a Nation at Tate Liverpool – Part 2 – Otto Dix: The Evil Eye

The second part of the current exhibition at Tate Liverpool features paintings and works on paper by Otto Dix who is best known for

his unforgiving depiction of Weimar Society and the Great War from whence it was forged. Along with George Grosz and Max Beckmann, he is  considered one of the most important artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit. (www.ottodix.org)

The exhibition website also tells us

Dix was a key supporter of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement, a name coined after an exhibition held in Mannheim, Germany in 1925. Described by art historian G.F. Hartlaub, as ‘new realism bearing a socialist flavour’, the movement sought to depict the social and political realities of the Weimar Republic.

The exhibition includes a large number of his paintings and an important series of prints together with some contextual materials. Consequently it’s a good survey of his work.

August Sander, The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha, 1925/26

The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha (1925-6) by August Sander

The first section of the exhibition concentrates on his paintings and watercolours depicting the “underside” or the fringes of society. They’re quite brutal caricatures that don’t pull any punches. But they show quite a different side of Weimar Germany than August Sander’s photographs of more ordinary “mainstream” people taken during the same period. As the Observer’s reviewer puts it

Dix’s Weimar is a nightmare of raddled prostitutes, drunk customers and violent sailors, of rape, murder and maggot-ridden skulls.

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Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin (1927)

The Observer again

Dix’s paintings are fiercely indigestible; you are meant to look at the livid cheeks and poisonous impasto and recoil. He believed in the disruptive power of ugliness.

Dix had volunteered at the outbreak of the First World War and served as an artilleryman and machine gunner on the Western Front, where he took part in the Battle of the Somme. In 1918, weary of trench fighting he volunteered as an aerial observer and trained as an aeroplane pilot. He was traumatised by the war and suffered recurring nightmares. His world view was coloured by these experiences which are depicted in a series of 50 etchings, many of which which don’t make comfortable viewing. I felt they were the most affecting part of the exhibition.

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Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) (1924)

After viewing the horrors of war so graphically portrayed in the etchings, the next section of the exhibition brought us back down to earth with a series of more sober (a relative term when considering Dix’s work) portraits.

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Self-Portrait with Easel (1926)

This was a major source of his income during the 1920’s. His style was a mixture of realism and caricature, both old fashioned and avant-garde, as we can see in this example

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Portrait of the Jeweller Karl Krall (1923)

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Portrait of the Photographer Hugo Erfurth with Dog (1926)

He painted them using the techniques used by the Renaissance “old masters”. This involved using a layering effect, with egg tempera  finished with oils. There was a video on display of an old film which showed him “in action”.

The final section of the exhibition showed a different aspect of the artist with paintings of his family and a series of 14 watercolours painted in 1925 for a picture book for his five-year-old stepdaughter, Hana Koch. The subjects of these watercolours include mythical and biblical figures and stories such as St George fighting the dragon, St Christopher, Jonah and the whale, and David and Goliath.

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Portraying a Nation at Tate Liverpool – Part 1 – People of the 20th Century

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On Saturday we drove over to Liverpool – the main purpose being to visit the latest exhibition at the Tate, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933. It’s actually two exhibitions: ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander, and Otto Dix: The Evil Eye.

August Sander was a German photographer who between the two World Wars attempted to document the people of Germany in a series of photographs People of the Twentieth Century. The exhibition includes well over 100 photographs (I lost count) from this series

Sander August, Self-Portrait, 1925

August Sander – Self Portrait

He took portraits of people from all segments of society grouping them into seven distinct categories: ‘The Farmer’, ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, ‘The Woman’, ‘Classes and Professions’, ‘The Artists’, ‘The City’ and ‘The Last People’.

To take the photographs he used an old-fashioned large-format camera, glass negatives and long exposure times. This allowed him to capture his subjects in minute detail.

August Sander, Farmer’s Child, 1919

At the same time his set up meant that there was a shallow “depth of field” which meant that the background is out of focus. This means that the viewer concentrates on the subject rather than their surroundings.

The image many people have of the Weimar Republic was of a rather wild, bohemian society where “anything goes”. He certainly captured this aspect of the times with photographs like this one of a secretary with her fashionable, shapeless dress,  androgynous, almost masculine hairstyle and manner. She looks like someone out of Cabaret

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Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne

He also photographed intellectuals such as the subject of the second half of the exhibition – Otto Dix

August Sander, The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha, 1925/26

The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha

But the majority of his subjects were ordinary workers, farmers, mothers and children. which probably paint a truer picture of life between the wars in Germany

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Blacksmiths

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The Man of the Soil

August Sander, Police Officer and Master of the Watch, 1925

Police Officer

He also included portraits of people on the fringes of society – including the blind and disabled people. The same people who would soon be persecuted by the Nazis. His portraits however, for the times, are sympathetic.

Sander had leftist views and was clearly on the side of the outsiders. Included in the exhibition were a number of Jewish victims of persecution, such as this young lady.

Victim of Persecution

A victim of persecution

The photographs were originally taken for their passports as they were attempting to leave Germany towards the end of the 1930s. They show real, ordinary people at a time when the Nazis were presenting  distorted caricatures of Jews.

Sander wrote

”It is not my intention either to criticize or to describe these people, but to create a piece of history with my pictures.”

and to achieve that aim he also photographed the very people who were responsible for the persecution

August Sander, National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture

National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture

even though one of their victims was his own son, an active socialist.

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Political Prisoner [Erich Sander]

The Tate has displayed the photographs chronologically along with a commentary listing the events occurring when they were taken, rather than grouped by ”type,” as Sander intended. I wonder whether this loses something. Nevertheless I felt that it was an excellent exhibition of outstanding portraits, showing the skill and the dedication of the photographer as an artist.