This week I went to Tate Liverpool to see the exhibition Portraying a Nation, Germany 1919 – 1933.
The exhibition is made up of two completely separate sections, although thematically linked. The first half shows August Sander’s photographs while the second half concentrates on the work of Otto Dix.
I skipped over the August Sander half, far too excited to reach the Otto Dix area. Dix is an artist I have been interested in for a long time and I was really looking forward to seeing his work up close.
There are 150 or so works on display and they range from pencil sketches to watercolours to etchings to oil paintings. They’re hung roughly chronologically and one whole section is set aside for a full sequence of The War etchings from 1924. More of that later.
Before starting, I was fully expecting to see a world of depravity. This isn’t a family show. Dix reflected the world around him, that of Germany in the 20s, and we all know what that looks like. Like the film Cabaret, but more so. And, to be fair, there was lots of depravity. But there was also tenderness and love, especially when his own family were the subjects.
Almost immediately, before you can pause for breath, we’re into watercolour portraits of prostitutes and the like. They look like skeletons, some of these people, barely human. Strip Worker 1920 is a good example.
Real disgust at the world seems to shine from some of these works. Sex Murder from 1922 shows a dead prostitute, like one of those photographs of the Jack the Ripper victims. To top it off, there are two dogs rutting in the foreground. This isn’t a rosy world view, to say the least. Dedicated Sadists from 1922 is another bleak work, the title telling you all you need to know.
Then, just when you start to think you’ve had enough of this darkness and cynicsm, up pops a portrait of his wife Martha from 1923. The affection is clear, stark, a striking contrast to the harder edged work. Another portrait of Martha, who he called Mutzli, this time in pencil from 1921 is absolutely amazing. Perhaps one of the most affecting pieces in the exhibition because of it’s contrast to the darkness of the other works.
The “bright side of life” continues with the recently re-discovered watercolours for a childrens book painted for his daughter Hana. These amazing works date from 1925 and their cartoon-like nature sometimes reminds one of Ralph Steadman and Pink Floyd’s The Wall – especially the 7 Deadly Sins. These childrens book paintings are actually more cheerful than my description makes them sound!
Then comes The War portfolio from 1924. Dix’s response to the first world war he fought in. The whole portfolio, all 50 etchings are on show here, together and in sequence. It’s incredible, making your way along from one etching to the next, like watching a film of the war, the whole thing, running before your eyes. The horrendous-ness (?) of it, the futility, the death sears into your brain. Quite an experience, seeing all those images one after the other in the order they were conceived.
Finally, we move on from The War to the oil paintings.
In some ways, the colour of the canvases is a relief after the black and white horrors of the War prints. The brightness of the tempera works especially seems like an antidote to what’s come before, perhaps reflecting how Germany was recovering from defeat in the war. Or maybe just reflecting what Berlin was like? The life, the vibrancy. On the other hand, the paintings don’t get too far away from the degeneracy that Dix seems to see everywhere. Portrait of the Manufacturer Dr Julius Hesse with Paint Sample from 1926is a good example of the bright colour in these paintings. Portrait of Dr Heinrich Stadelmann from 1922 is an incredible painting, the eyes thickly encrusted with paint, cleverly depicting his trade as a hypnotist. ‘The Jeweller Karl Krall from 1923 and Hugo Erfurth with Dog from 1926, the lolling dog tongue echoing the man’s suit, show us Dix skewering his subjects. The portraits are never flattering. In the Portrait of the Philosopher Max Scheler from 1926 the subject resembles a frog.
The headline painting, displayed on the front of the catalog and in the promotional posters is the Reclining Woman on Leopard Skin from 1927. Something of this work seems to look forward to Lucian Freud and his works from the 1950s, for example Woman with a White Dog but Freud always seems to have some affection for his subjects. With Dix it feels like he’s, at best, detached and , at worst, mocking or insulting them.
And that was it. Out of the darkness and back into the light for the rest of Tate Liverpool. Despite the bleakness of some of the work on display, I have to say this is a fantastic exhibition. In a word, unmissable.