Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933, explores the period in Germany between the two World Wars: the Weimar Republic. For the first time, painter Otto Dix and photographer August Sander have their work displayed alongside each other in two complementary exhibitions, inviting new perspectives to a discontented period of time.
Otto Dix served in World War I, involved in both the Somme and Flanders. His exhibition, The Evil Eye, contains a fantastic representation of how skill and vision develop simultaneously, allowing him to communicate the extremes of humanity so vividly. From his cubist inflected drawings depicting combat scenes, to his striking portraits using tempera and oil on wood, a large part of Otto’s mind and reflections are exhibited for all to see.
Dix became one of the foremost Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) painters, a movement that arose in the 1920s. Artists like Dix rejected more extreme forms of avant-garde art such as expressionism in favour of a return to a more traditional approach.
The painting above and many others in the exhibition, oozes flamboyance and sexuality, but while there is passion in the style of painting, I find it lacking in the subject. The red lipstick, the curves and folds and the panting dog imply a sexual desire, but whilst one hand is ready to assist her pounce, the other supports her face in a thoughtful expression. The welcomed confusion of emotion in Dix’s work becomes emblematic of the contradictions of the Republic and the time.
Although the exhibition unveils the harsh realities of society and war, The Evil Eye is also an in depth exploration of personal reflection, personal fantasy and personal development. It is interesting then, that Dix’s self-portrait felt almost like an uncomfortable presence. The glare of his eyes could easily be mistaken for aggression if it weren’t for the anxious concentration revealed in his overlapping, tensely posed fingers. Painted during a time when personal exploration was often discouraged, the prominence of Dix slightly hiding behind his easel becomes ever-more significant.
ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander presents Sander’s best known series, People of the Twentieth Century, displaying more than 140 photographs alongside a timeline of Weimar Germany. The photographs each belong to a category, each category being a group of people in society. The presentation of this exhibition allows the history of Weimar and Sander’s photographs to be viewed in direct comparison, creating a captivating picture of what was once a reality.
I say captivating because a lot of the photographs didn’t immediately correlate with their title and category. In particular ‘The Last People’ in which Sander photographed ‘the Sick, the Insane and Matter’. A photograph of a woman who suffered from restricted growth blurred the categories of ‘The Last People’ and ‘The Woman’, I couldn’t help but think how this photograph represented how destructive categorisation would become in World War II. Sander brings to light that these individuals cannot be sectioned into a single category, but that alongside this particular timeline, they were.
‘Today with photography we can communicate our thoughts, conception and realities, to all the people on earth; if we add the date of the year we have the power to fix the history of the world’
August Sander (1931)
The photograph that stood out to me as being most representative of its category was ‘The Actor’. From the black background, reminiscent of an unlit stage, to the expressive body language of the subject, this photograph exuded presence. The exhibition also included photographs that were taken by his son, Erich, under the category ‘The Persecuted’. Erich was imprisoned at Seigburg due to his involvement in the Socialist Worker Party, his images were stripped back, almost like mugshots in contrast with his father’s.
These wonderful exhibitions are open to visit until the 15th October, I would strongly advise anyone to take advantage of this piece of history right on our doorstep in Liverpool.