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Portraying a Nation, Tate Liverpool review – an inspired juxtaposition | reviews, news & interviews

Portraying a Nation, Tate Liverpool review – an inspired juxtaposition

Portraying a Nation, Tate Liverpool review – an inspired juxtaposition

Two artists hounded by the Nazis for their unflinching portrayal of the German people

Otto Dix, 'Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin', 1927Collection Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, gifted by Samuel A. Berger

Portraying a Nation juxtaposes photographs by August Sander with paintings by Otto Dix. It's an inspired idea as both artists wanted to hold up a mirror to German society during a time of extreme change. Dix described his lucid form of critical realism as “life undiluted”,  while Sander wrote “We must be able to bear seeing the truth.” “Photography”, he observed, “can depict things in magnificent beauty, but also in terrible truth.” 

Sander planned to create a portrait of his country by photographing people from all walks of life. Begun in 1920, this mammoth task was still unfinished when he died in 1964 and, in the meantime, he took some of the most memorable portraits of the 20th century. Divided into seven categories – Farmers, Skilled Tradesmen, Women, Classes and Professions, Artists, City Dwellers and The Last People (the marginalised) – his subjects are seen not as individuals but representatives of a group. 

Many seem archetypal. The Bricklayer, 1928, balances a hod full of bricks across his shoulders to frame his head like a yoke. The portly Pastrycook mixes dough in a large bowl; his clean white coat, black trousers and shiny shoes suggest he has taken some trouble over his appearance. The Washerwoman, c.1930, has draped a mound of wet clothes on the pump she uses to rinse them. In her baggy apron, she looks nearly as sodden as her washing. The Police Officer, 1925, sports a huge handlebar moustache nearly as wide as his shoulders. Most of the professional men have neat little taches which, along with their tight collars, pursed lips and rimless glasses, make them look self-satisfied and mean. The Banker, 1929, on the other hand, appears suave and insouciant.

The Artists are desperate to look different; we are also told their names. Willi Bongard and Gottfried Brockmann pose together, staring into space as though lost in creative reverie. Marta Hegemann has a bird, heart and cross painted across one cheek. Helene Abelen poses like a boxer in baggy white trousers, a cigarette clamped menacingly between her bared teeth. Apart from his cravat, Otto Dix looks rather conventional, though. Sander photographed him with his wife Martha, her hair cut in a fashionable bob.

The Turkish Mousetrap Salesman, 1924-30 (pictured above right), could do with a wash and brush up. His scruffy appearance puts him in the category of The Last People along with foreign workers, gypsies, vagrants, the disabled, the sick and dying. A moving close-up of a dead woman is titled Matter, 1925, a reminder that we all turn to dust. This group bears a chilling resemblance to the people earmarked by the Nazis for extermination. Far from being a Nazi sympathiser, though, Sander was left wing; he added two new categories to his list – Victim of Persecution and Political Prisoner – to allow sympathetic portraits of Jews and a self-portrait by his son Erich who, as a member of the Communist Party, was imprisoned and died in custody. 

In 1929 Sander published Face of Our Time, the first installment of People of the 20th Century. He used glass plate negatives rather than film and, in 1934, the Nazis smashed the plates and burned all remaining copies of the book because the view it offered of the German people did not accord with the rosy picture they wished to portray.

The social, political and financial upheavals that enabled Hitler to come to power are listed on the walls around the 140 photographs on display; its a useful reminder of the context in which Sander and Dix were working and the extraordinary outburst of creative activity that characterised the early years of the Weimar Republic. 

World War One dramatically changed the lives of many women. My favourite photograph is of The Secretary at West German Radio (pictured above left) who with her cropped hair, plucked eyebrows, satin sheath dress and cigarette, represents the “new woman”. She was Sylvia von Harden, a journalist whom Otto Dix painted in 1926, five years before Sander’s photograph. His painting is not included in the show, which is a shame since it demonstrates how far he deviated from appearances. He portrays her in much the same pose as Sander, but instead of a healthy young beauty, makes her look pale, raddled and grasping.  

He gave her a claw-like hand and in his Self-Portrait with Easel (pictured below left); painted the same year, he shows his own hand as a claw to suggest that, beneath his stiff exterior, there bubbles a seething cauldron of rage and frustration. He looks like a bomb about to go off and, in a sense, it had already exploded in the form of an excoriating series of etchings based on the memories of trench warfare which haunted him. “For at least ten years,” he recalled, “I kept getting these dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through”.

Begun in 1923, The War consists of 50 prints that reveal the beastly actuality of combat. In this pantheon of horror, there are no heroes. Dance of Death is a jagged choreography of bodies impaled on barbed wire. In The Convoy of Wounded in the Houthulst Forest a soldier is carried in a blanket slung from poles like a hunting trophy, as though he were dead meat. Adorned with garlands of worms that wriggle gaily in every orifice, Skull (pictured above right) indicates that, in war, death is the only victor. 

Dix was a master of the aquatint technique and In Dead Sapper at his Post, the erosion of the plate by acid is equated with the corpse’s decaying flesh and disintegrating uniform. His skill with watercolour was equally impressive; dabs of liquid colour convey a slick of make-up, a glitter of jewelry, the transparency of muslin and allure of female flesh. You can almost smell these women, destitute war widows who turned to prostitution to survive. With his gimlet eye, Dix records their desperate bid to attract clients and the lustful encounters that ensued.

His attitude towards women remains ambivalent; his wife, Martha is almost the only one portrayed sympathetically. The actress, Vera Simailova reclines on a leopard skin rug (main picture); her pose was inspired by the long history of female nudes beginning with Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus of 1510, but there is nothing inviting about her. Her claw-like hands, feline face and cat’s eyes make her seem like a voracious predator about to pounce, while the hyena skulking in the background suggests that victims will be torn apart.

Inspired by Old Masters like Hans Baldung Grien, Dix had begun to paint on wood panels in thin glazes of oil over tempora, which gives his portraits an eerie stillness and lucidity. If the women are sirens, the men have either been crippled and traumatised by war or are stuffed shirts and puppy dogs. Despite his smart suit, photographer Hugo Erfurth looks defeated; his Alsatian dog may have sharp teeth, but he looks as wooden and as ferocious as a rocking horse. 

Under the rubric of the New Objectivity, realists like Otto Dix and August Sander created a revealing portrait of people living in the Weimar Republic through a period of extreme social and economic change. Providing a disturbing glimpse of difficult times, it is an exhibition not to be missed.

In 'Dead Sapper at his Post', the erosion of the plate by acid is equated with the corpse’s decaying flesh

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