Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933

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Albert Dock, Liverpool. Not as impressive as the Speicher of Hamburg or Lübeck, though.

To Liverpool today to see this excellent exhibition at the Tate. It was really two exhibitions in one: the photographs of August Sander and the works of Otto Dix, both influenced by the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. In Sander’s case, you can see how he aimed at objectivity: even his most famous sitters like Richard Strauss are identified only by profession or status. Dix’s work is harshly realistic, but I can’t see that it’s objective: it seems saturated with emotion (mostly vitriol!).

Things I noticed in Sander’s photographs:

  • Boots. Big, black and buttoned. Prisons for toes. Exceptions were the painter’s wife (espadrilles) and the painter’s child (bare feet).
  • Photographs of crop-haired middle-class boys looked like young Erich von Stroheims.
  • Lots of sailor suits for middle-class boys.
  • Lots of big dogs for professional men.
  • Perhaps it’s my blind spot, but I couldn’t see any difference between the faces of the Nazi members and those of the bakers, students, masons, etc.

Things I learned:

  • I hadn’t realised how quickly Hitler had acted once Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor in January 1933: by July of that year not only had several oppressive laws been passed but, crucially, the NSDAP was the sole permitted political party.
  • The difference between Werkstudenten and Corpsstudenten: in 1920 there were 10,000 of the former and 64,000 in 1924.  From the photos I would say that they used far less hair oil and had fewer Mensur scars (Schmisse) than the latter. I guess it suggests a kind of proletarianisation of university study.

As for Dix:

  • There were several warnings in the gallery that some of his works were not “suitable” for everyone. How true! It’s easier to stand in front of etchings of rotting corpses in trenches than a whole row of brothel/male lust/Lustmord paintings. Disconcerting, but gallery-going ain’t for cissies.
  • The Dix rooms opened with some early gouache sketches  of vegetation from his pre-war student days . . . and they were utterly beautiful.
  • One war-time sketch was very futurist/cubist. A reminder that Dix might have taken another path.
  • I hadn’t realised how Dix had studied the Old masters and copied their techniques. There were paintings there – like the portrait of Johanna Ey – where the fabrics glowed like Holbein, or others that were Titian portraits of jazz-age blondes.
  • There’s always something unsettling about Dix’s portraits – even the commissioned ones where he might be expected to flatter. The angle, the eyes, the upper lip . . .
  • The War sequence of etchings: where does the mud end and the human/corpse begin? The vegetative tendrils that were so beautiful in the early studies are now seen again crawling through a skull. A dozen momento moris ranged on the wall.

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  • Coming from a cosseted and protected generation, I find it bewildering that men of Dix’s generation were accepting of their horrific wartime experience. (Robert Graves is another.) Yet they are. Dix said (I don’t know when) that you have to have seen people in the untethered state to know something about humans.

It was quite fascinating – not just the exhibits and the sense of the post-WWI victims and wounds, but also the timeline of events. If only there hadn’t been a global economic crash in 1929, could things have been different?  I haven’t yet given much thought to parallels with the present, but the impression of this exhibition will linger for a while yet.

There was also a short silent film of from 1927 by Walter Ruttman (Berlin: die Sinfonie der Großstadt), which revelled in the modernity of electric light, mass transport, advertising, proximity/anonymity, women’s legs . . . and hanging around on street corners.

And then there’s Liverpool itself – another city that reinvented itself in the modern age with mini-skyscrapers and civil engineering feats. I’ll be back in November to find out more.

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