A Distant Close Up – Review: Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933

August Sander, 1876-1964
Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne 1931, printed 1992
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 149 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Tate Liverpool dedicates two main exhibition spaces to the Weimar Republic with two artists, who couldn’t be more different: the photographer August Sander and the painter Otto Dix. For those, who grew up in Berlin, like me, he is best known for the triptych Metropolis from 1928. In orangey, yellow and pink tones it depicts a couple dancing to a jazz band; it is often used to represent the Golden Twenties. But none of that can be found here as this section of the exhibition is called Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, which shows a wide range of his work – but more on that later, as the show starts with August Sander.

Three rooms with neatly lined up black-and-white photographs in frames of the same size. It clearly reflects that the content of the images is regarded more as an object than a subject. The images comprise part of a study, which August Sander devoted himself to for the latter part of his life: People of the 20th century. 144 of the more than 650 images of the project can be seen here. Sander put the results into categories: The Farmer; The Skilled Tradesman; The Woman; Classes and Professions; The Artists; The City and The Last People.

The images show people on their own, with relatives or colleagues, in their home or work environment or a studio. The looks on their faces are often very serious, exuding a sense of dignity or honour at being photographed – and with regards to their profession, the pride they take in it, such as the Pastrycook (1928). These are no snapshots as they were taken by a heavy, large format camera, which demanded careful preparation. What is striking is that often even the children have the serious expression of 50-year-olds in their eyes. But there are exceptions, for example the Working class Mother (1927) who is smiling and proudly carries a very healthy looking child. Or strangely the image of a face of a recently deceased old woman – with its closed eyes it carries a peacefulness that captures more life than some others. Despite the vast spectrum of people August Sander covered, not many traces of LGBT life can be detected in this display. There is the picture of The Painter’s Wife (1926), showing Helene Abelen in long white trousers, a white shirt, a tie, very short hair that is combed back, about to light a cigarette, and easily mistakable for a young man. Nearby there’s a picture with her and her daughter, where she looks just as masculine, which makes you wonder and want to find out more, but there is not much to find. Another arresting image is the one of the Secretary at West German Radio (1931). She perfectly embodies the New Woman of that time: cropped hair, and despite her dress, she conveys a more male than female attitude. Her direct gaze is also rather unflappable, if not even slightly hostile. Her thoughts towards the viewer could easily have been: ‘What are you looking at? Never seen a woman before?’ The lack of LGBT figures might lie in the fact that Sander mainly worked in the area of Cologne, rather than venturing to Berlin, where they lived a more open life. Or maybe it tells us something else about him? Did he not want to show them? Did he not regard them as a section of society?

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Portrait of the Jeweler Karl Krall 1923
Oil paint on canvas
905 x 605 mm
Kunst und Museumsverein im Von der Heydt Museum Wuppertal, Germany
  Photo: Antje Zeis-Loi, Medienzentrum Wuppertal. © DACS 2017.

The string of photographs is accompanied by a timeline starting in 1919 and ending in 1945. The font resembles handwriting, which evokes the idea of a scrapbook through the years, considering the images are placed in a rough chronological order and the texts include unusual nuggets of information such as the first long distance call in 1927 between Frankfurt and New York or the first Book Day in 1929 to promote reading. This is very much in line with Sander’s sober documentary style, which is a typical feature of the New Objectivity that dominated the art world of the Weimar Republic.

Among the many unknown faces who represent a facet of society, there are also a few prominent people such as the composer Paul Hindemith, the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann and the painter Otto Dix, which creates a link to the exhibition that follows, which offers a completely different aspect of the art of that period.

Otto Dix: The Evil Eye shows a variety of work that is lesser known and includes early graphic design work from the years 1922-25, playful images of his family, 50 etchings of the war made in 1924 that are not for the faint-hearted, and portraits painted in oil.

While Sander looks at society’s underbelly by taking photographs of beggars, cripples and blind people, Dix presents prostitutes in garish colours and all shapes and sizes. The reality of that period seems to scream with pain to cope with the nightmares of the First World War, which he experienced first hand. In the section Life Undiluted, there is no conventional beauty but a strong vision of the way he experienced the post-war world around him, for example in Exotic Brothel (1922). But there are also more traditional portraits such as the one of the photographer Hugo Erfurth with his dog (1926), which has a very static look in his eyes like the ones in Sander’s portraits. Of more interest however is the Portrait of the Jeweler Karl Krall (1923), which allows the sitter’s sexuality to shine through with a female waistline, sensuous lips and a ring on his finger. It sets itself apart from all the other portraits, in which either women or strong men are depicted. It’s refreshing to see. Altogether, the Dix exhibition is more difficult to navigate your way through. The work is grouped into different themes and it is not clear, in which order they are supposed to be seen to make sense of or provide an insight into his work.

Putting both exhibitions next to each other stresses just how differently the two artists responded to the world around them. While Sander created a body of work that aimed at timelessness by just documenting what he saw and using materials, such as large plates, which would endure, Dix heavily interpreted the world around him with strong colours and shapes and almost completely different subjects.

Both exhibitions provide a close up of the time: Sander because of his range and ability to capture the world precisely with his camera, and Dix because of his uncompromising view of how he saw the world, where one often feels he was bang in the middle of a scene. Yet both retain a distance, too. While Sander’s characters often seem remote and lifeless in their seriousness, Dix’s characters are often so alienated in their depiction that it keeps the viewer at bay.

Neither of the exhibitions celebrate the Weimar Republic as the Golden Twenties that we are familiar with or point to the liberty it brought to many people, but they show us a darker side that we should be aware of too.

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 is on at Tate Liverpool until 15 October 2017

Sabine Schereck

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