By Michael Lavalette
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Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933

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Issue 426

Germany after the First World War was a society in deep crisis. The war ended with the overthrow of the Kaiser and with Germany on the brink of socialist revolution. The Weimar Republic (1919-1933) was racked by war debts, hyperinflation, economic crises, mass unemployment, dramatic political conflict and the growth of both the revolutionary left and fascism.

Against this background Germany, with Berlin at its heart, saw a great cultural flourishing as artists grappled with the problems of their age. The Weimar Republic gave us the theatre of Brecht, the literature of Thomas Mann, the cinema of Fritz Lang, the architecture of the Bauhaus School and the paintings of artists like Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and George Grosz.

This summer Tate Liverpool is exploring some of these themes in a combined exhibition of the photography of August Sander (1875-1964) and the paintings of Otto Dix (1891-1969).

Sander was a photographer and a member of the artistic network known as the Cologne Progressives. By the early 1920s he had decided to undertake a long-term project called People of the Twentieth Century. Sander photographed people and placed them into one of seven categories: farmers, skilled tradespeople, women, professionals, artists, the city and the last people. The Bricklayer (1928), for example, captures what we might call the dignity of labour. Pictures of the persecuted are moving and capture something of the humanity of the system’s victims.

But viewing the portraits I was reminded of John Berger’s comments about photography and the ways that photographs can lose their context and specificity. The portraits of National Socialists, for example, are ambiguous and easily adaptable to meanings that Sander didn’t intend.

The second part of the exhibition looks at the work of Otto Dix. Dix was trained in Dresden. He fought in the trenches of the First World War. After the war he became an exponent of “New Objectivity” — an approach which embraced social-political criticism and realism in art. Dix’s paintings reveal the ugliness and destruction of capitalism and war. The exhibition includes his Der Krieg cycle of 50 etchings (1924). These are based on his memories and experiences of the war. They include numerous drawings of dead bodies — human and animal — injured men, traumatised and fearful people, skulls alive with worms, soldiers drinking to survive, and women being abused in brothels. In short it captures all the horrors of war.

The exhibition also includes his paintings of the victims of capitalist brutality. Paintings such as Sex Murder (1922), The Suicide (1922) or Dedicated to Fetishists (1923) reveal something of society’s dark underbelly.

Dix painted portraits to earn a living. But the portraits are deeply satirical and encapsulate the way he viewed society. In Portrait of Dr Heinrich Stadelmann (1922) he paints his subject with a green hue and haunting, vacant eyes. It’s not at all flattering. But Stadelmann was a psychoanalyst and the painting leaves you wondering what horrors the doctor has encountered among his patients.

Dix’s art brought him into conflict with the Nazis. His work was banned and denounced as “degenerate”. Dix moved his family to the country and started to produce far less challenging paintings.

The exhibition is thought provoking and well worth a visit.

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