Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933

By ​Lauren Velvick

Tate Liverpool
Fri 23 June – Sun 15 October 2017

The latest in a series of dual exhibitions at Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 -1933 pairs ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander with Otto Dix: Evil Eye. Both collections of work have previously been shown as separate exhibitions and are here brought into juxtaposition in line with departing director Francesco Manacorda’s curatorial scheme. Each exhibition is substantial in itself, requiring an investment of time and legwork, and are plainly complementary in that Sander’s photographs and Dix’s paintings both depict the people of the ‘Weimar Republic’, but the way in which both artists tease and rebuff objectivity produces a particularly intriguing channel between the two. In aiming at, or being framed within an attempt at objectivity, the work of Sanders and Dix reveal its limits. A wall text quoting Sander betrays his hope to ‘transmit the truth’, but also an awareness of the potential of photography to deceive, whereas Dix is framed within the Dusseldorf ‘New Objectivity’ movement while his work demonstrates a great deal of passion.

August Sander, National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture, c.1938 (printed 1990), gelatin silver print on paper. © Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017.
Otto Dix, Portrait of the Jeweler Karl Krall, 1923, oil paint on canvas. Photo: Antje Zeis-Loi, Medienzentrum Wuppertal. © DACS 2017.

The paired exhibitions begin with Sander’s photographs, comprising a section of his People of the Twentieth Century project. Individual photographs are hung chronologically in a snaking line around three rooms, interspersed with hand-written wall text and with small paper labels pinned beneath. The month-by-month accounts of political and social upheaval written on the walls emphasise a sense of unstoppable, terrible momentum, whilst the minutia of everyday life depicted in the images cautions the viewer against detached observation. The typological categories that Sander devised to organise these portraits infer more ideology and social context as the collection progresses, whereby at first the viewer can only assume or guess at the political leanings of his subjects, by the 1930s their politics have come to define their professions, and by 1933 they are simply divided between persecutor and victim.

August Sander, The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha, 1925-6 (printed 1991), gelatin silver print on paper. © Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017.
Otto Dix, Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin (Liegende auf Leopardenfell), 1927, oil paint on panel. © DACS 2017. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Gift of Samuel A. Berger; 55.031.

Compared to the regimented, monochromatic depictions in Sander’s work Dix’s drawings and paintings pulse and burst. The artist is described as having sought to depict real life in all its gory detail, but what emerges through the work on show and the artist’s own statements is a vision of trauma. In a series of watercolours Dix depicts the WWI widows that also appear in Sander’s photographs, however where Sander’s may have noted that these women were unlikely to remarry, Dix emphasises that sex work was a common way for them to support themselves. Throughout The Evil Eye sex and death are depicted either simultaneously, or as two sides of the same coin - the competing drives of the human condition. This is especially evident in brothel scenes where faces become skulls, and graphic depictions of sexualised murder and violence. Dix depicts horror unflinchingly and explicitly in series of etchings and watercolours, but the latent potential for eroticism and violence also undulates beneath the surface of his glossy portraits. In these works where the subjects are tightly framed and appear bulbous, slimy and permeable, it is as though once you’ve seen people blown apart, nobody can really be whole.

​Lauren Velvick is an artist and writer based in Liverpool.

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