Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 – Tate Liverpool Exhibition Review

The August Sander/Otto Dix exhibition at Tate Liverpool is one of the most satisfying exhibitions I’ve seen for a long time. The title is entirely appropriate: the show brings together Dix, one of the most original and significant artists of the Weimar years, with the sober, observational photography of Sander. Seeing the work of both together gives a real sense of completeness – the people of Germany in the photography of Sander, and Dix’s remarkable contribution to the art of the 20th Century. The work of both artists shows a striking command of their media – the formal yet human compositions of the photography, the richness and depth of colour showing Dix’s command of the techniques of German masters of the Northern European resistance in his paintings,

Sander’s photographs comprehensively record the images of individuals and families across German society, from the urban and rural proletariat to the bourgeoisie, from the socially disadvantaged to the intelligentsia, in a series of beautifully composed observations from which the humanity, the strength, the vulnerability of his subjects radiates powerfully and poignantly. Looking at these faces, knowing of the horror that was about to swamp Germany, it’s impossible not to feel empathy and compassion for his subjects.

Dix’s paintings, etchings and drawings show another side of post-WWI Germany; a new sexual frankness, a willingness to look directly at both the horror of the war and at the disappointments of peace. There’s an undeniable ugliness about some of Dix’s work that at times veers into misanthropy and misogyny. He’d seen extensive service on the Western Front, and there seems to have been a certain ambivalence about his attitude to the war. While he clearly understood its ugliness and terror, as a keen disciple of Nietzsche in his youth he also appears to have regarded his experiences as a test of will. Dix, perhaps, sits within a continuum of German men brutalised by the war. Some, like him, may have been stripped of sentimentality while others descended into the moral nihilism and contempt for perceived weakness that led to them forming the backbone of the right-wing Freikorps in the immediate aftermath of the war and, ultimately, the apparatus of the Nazi state.

Both artists fell out of favour during the Hitler years. Dix’s work was seen by the Nazis as the epitome of degenerate art, while much of Sander’s work was destroyed and his son jailed as a political dissident.

The exhibition has another two weeks to go and if you have a chance to see it, take it. There are, I think, 150 works by Dix and well over 100 of Sanders’s photographs. It’s well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

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