Portraying A Nation: A Cultural Response To Social Turmoil

August Sander The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha 1925-6, printed 1991 © Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

As Tate Liverpool prepares to open a new exhibition dealing with Weimar Germany, Sam Riding looks at the context in which three inter-War artists worked: what drove them, and what became of them in the aftermath of Hitler’s dictatorship…

Can a nation be characterised by a cultural movement? Can art be used as a tool for viewing society? Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933, opening this week at Tate Liverpool, attempts to do just that: depicting the turmoil of the country before Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the Nazi Party.

By looking at this timeline through the eyes of two key, German-born artists, painter Otto Dix and photographer August Sander, Portraying a Nation hopes to capture the energy and extremes of lifestyle and upheaval during a period of huge social, cultural and political significance. The Weimar period was one in which Germany sought to modernise, roughly between the end of the First World War, and Hitler’s ascent to political power. Culturally and artistically, it was at the forefront of the avant-garde. The influence of German artists in literature, architecture, music and cinema as well as art was both ground-breaking and wide reaching. However, 1920s Berlin was also a city marked by poverty and protest. The impact of the First World War, subsequent hyperinflation and later, the Great Depression, ensured people from all classes saw their lives change, and often radically.

“In this painting, as with much of Dix’s work, extravagance and depravity are portrayed as commonplace”

Dix (1891–1969), a veteran of the First World War, drew on his experiences to focus on ideas, movements and social elements that made up the fabric of Weimar Germany. Dix was profoundly affected by his exposure to the horrors of war, despite receiving the accolade of the Iron Cross. These horrors are a motif running through much of his work. His painting Prager Straße (1920) depicts men begging for money, presumably casualties of war, whilst being ignored. A pamphlet can also be seen declaring “Jews Out”: alluding to the racial tensions which began to permeate Germany at this time, foreshadowing a much darker future. In this painting, as with much of Dix’s work, extravagance and depravity are portrayed as commonplace. Such deep contrasts in Weimar Germany contributed to a rich cultural and artistic legacy.

Suicide 1916 by George Grosz 1893-1959

To reflect the realities of Weimar life, a modern realist movement dubbed new objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) was born. Moving away from the distortive lens of expressionism, new objectivity saw its proponents reject abstraction in favour of – as its name suggests – a more realistic take on German life at that time.  The existence of a culture of decadence alongside that of poverty and austerity was an aspect of the Weimar Republic reflected across various art forms. Dix’s Metropolis (1928) depicts the so-called jazz age alongside a concurrent, crippling defeat.

“Sander’s book, Face of Our Time, was banned in 1936, and many of his photographic plates were destroyed”

This parallel appears in other artworks created during the period, with artists such as George Grosz  showing a deep sensitivity to the chaotic urban environment in which they lived. Grosz’s Suicide (1916) is part of Tate’s current collection display Constellations, and though created prior to the Weimar government’s inception, it does highlight the gloom and moral corruption exacerbated by the outbreak of war in 1914. Another painting of his, Down with Liebknecht (1918), depicts the conflict and anger in Germany immediately following the conflict. Indeed, communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg were polarising figures, as they attempted to follow the example of the recently emergent Soviet Union. This violent support and opposition is shown by Liebknecht’s assassination in January 1919. Grosz captures the same raw emotions as Dix, perhaps unsurprising given his own experience of war – he was twice declared unfit for military service and ultimately suffered a mental breakdown.

Otto Dix Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) 1924 © DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

Representing the country’s populace through a different medium, Sander’s (1876–1964) photographic series People of the 20th Century presents a social cross-section – from nuns, to bricklayers, industrialists, political prisoners, soldiers, and intellectuals, including Dix and his wife (1926). There is much to be said for his portrayal of Germany, as his study included veterans, the homeless, blind children – people who the Weimar government had let down. By the end of the Second World War, Sander’s archive included some 40,000 images, though the Nazi regime greatly limited his work. His book, Face of Our Time, was banned in 1936, and many of his photographic plates were destroyed. At the forefront of the New Photography movement, Sander sought to bring a sense of realism to the period, providing a sharp, documentary focus; as opposed to the generally accepted, often exaggeratedly poetic-modernist style of photography which had dominated until then.

Weimar culture captured the changing face of a nation: one of progress, but also turmoil and uncertainty. Dix, Grosz and Sander all portrayed real people in very different ways. But as Weimar Germany lurched from one crisis to another, eventually crumbling in 1933, many of the Republic’s artists fell foul of the rise to power of Hitler (himself a failed artist) and Nazism. Both Grosz and Dix featured in the Nazis’ 1937 degenerate art exhibition, while Sander’s son Erich died in prison in 1944, jailed by the National Socialists for his political activities.

By providing a real depiction of a Germany that the Nazis attempted to sanitize, such artists were eventually left on the fringes. Dix was forced to join the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, a subdivision of Goebbels’s Cultural Ministry, and started to produce largely inoffensive work. He returned to Dresden after the war, where he remained until his death in 1969. Grosz, on the other hand, moved to New York in 1932, prior to Hitler’s rise to power, even opening his own private art school in the 1950s. He returned to Berlin, where he died in 1959, falling down the stairs after a heavy night’s drinking. Both artists were hugely influential, with Dix’s house opened to the public as a museum in 1991. Dix, Grosz and Sander encapsulated the Weimar Republic, offering a glimpse of what life was really like; but all suffered in its immediate aftermath.

Sam Riding

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933 opens at Tate Liverpool this Friday, 23 June 2017 and continues until 15 October 2017

Read more: Five Things to Know About Otto Dix and August Sander

Images, from top: August Sander, The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha, 1925-6, printed 1991 © Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017. Suicide, 1916, George Grosz (1893-1959). Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund 1976. Otto Dix, Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor), 1924, © DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

Posted on 22/06/2017 by thedoublenegative