Otto Dix, Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin 1927 © DACS 2017. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Gift of Samuel A. Berger; 55.031.
“Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-33 review –
August Sander and Otto Dix, masters of life and death”
‘Tate Liverpool – Sander sees the humanity in everyone,
Dix nothing but horror, in this superb show exploring Germany between the wars’
By LAURA CUMMING
A shifty industrialist sits behind a shining phone in Weimar Cologne. Three young farmers, on their way to a dance, stop for a second in sharp new suits. A gentleman beggar holds out his hat, as if in greeting, while travelling musicians roam the villages, bears dance in city squares, military cadets fight duels and the Turkish pedlar flogs his mousetraps. Anyone – everyone – is here.
This was August Sander’s lifelong ambition, of course: to photograph the whole of Germany. It was an impossible vision, thwarted by the Nazis, and inevitably defeated by the artist’s death. But by then, Sander (1876-1964) had cycled around depicting every face that struck him – farmers, politicians, plasterers, nuns, cleaners, writers, Gypsies, bankers, painters of both canvases and walls – to produce the greatest work of documentary photography in existence. Nothing less than humanity was Sander’s subject, and he found it everywhere he looked. Each individual is accorded equal dignity.
The terms of the project might seem to go against this. Encyclopedic, the subjects unnamed and classified in categories – Skilled Tradesmen, Farmers, Professionals, and so on – People of the 20th Century sounds like social taxonomy. But the tension is never between person and type. In Tate Liverpool’s marvellous show of some 144 images, you might find yourself contemplating the porter, hands swollen by labour, and wonder at his advanced age, but notice above all the exceptional compassion in his face.
You might consider the efficacy of the policeman’s sword but remember instead his merry eyes and idiosyncratic moustache – drifting sideways in both directions like cirrus. Each person presents him or herself with more or less gravity to be fixed in black and white for ever, and each is bared in that moment – giving themselves away.
One longs to know what Sander said to his subjects; how and why they submitted to his lens. But choices are self-explanatory. Take the mousetrap pedlar with his scarred face: the photograph asks you to look into his dark eyes and wonder what troubles they have seen in return. What exactly does the magnetopath do, holding out his hands as if they held magic? And is this really what Paul Hindemith looked like, fingers darkened with hairs? The initial response is basic wonder.
Then each picture invites you to look more deeply: at the family with congenital flushed cheeks; at the teenage twins, already in schism; at the schoolboy effortfully dangling a self-conscious cigarette. Whatever they do, whoever they are, there is always mutual empathy between sitter and artist. Even the blind seem to see him, for Sander never shows them as sightless, but always walking, reading, talking, gesturing as if looking straight at life.
It is not just the breadth but the depth of Sander’s work that amazes. The categories – and their evolving subcategories – amount to running subtitles. A nun, for instance, appears in the class of Intellectual Occupations as well as Women. The celebrated image of a rotund pastry chef mastering his rhyming bowl belongs to Skilled Trades, but also Widowers. The category of People Who Knock at My Door features a stout bailiff, respectfully captured in his kind-but-insistent authority. He had come to evict the artist.
About Sander himself, the sense is of unhurried generosity and thought. He preferred large formats and slow exposures, two and even three seconds, so that he could go deep into the detail. He sees and emphasises – with lighting, pose and composition – the singularity of each person. Some strike their own attitudes, perhaps: intellectuals at loggerheads, artists at costumed masquerades. Sometimes you feel that Sander has given a gentle prompt, particularly in the magnificent photograph of a bricklayer balancing a huge shelf of bricks on his shoulders. The power of the portrait comes not just from the sight of such a feat but from the equal strength of the man’s level gaze.
It’s rightly said that some of Sander’s photographs are as historically detailed as a passage of Zola. Together they amount to a journey through German society in a disastrous era. Foreboding tinges the exhibition, from the early images of first world war amputees scratching a living to the uniformed perpetrators of the second world war. For Sander’s project meant photographing young Nazis even as he portrayed their Jewish victims; they appear here, to devastating effect, on neighbouring walls.
It’s hardly surprising that the Nazis wrecked thousands of Sander’s negatives. For he saw and recorded with his incomparable eye everything they sought to destroy – the soul of the Gypsy, the dignity of the blind man, the philosopher and the dwarf, the humanity of each and all.
Max Scheler, the German philosopher who so opposed the Nazis that they suppressed his works in the early 30s, was portrayed by both Sander and his contemporary Otto Dix. The images can be compared at Tate Liverpool. For Portraying the Nation is not so much one show as two superbly matched exhibitions in separate galleries, with Dix (1891-1969) as Sander’s antidote, a painter recording man’s corrosive inhumanity.
Dix’s Weimar is a nightmare of raddled prostitutes, drunk customers and violent sailors, of rape, murder and maggot-ridden skulls. He served in the Great War and continued to see in postwar Germany the horrors in which he felt complicit. He’s in the morgue painting brains and convoluted intestines; or he’s in the city finding a seam of moral and spiritual corruption that hardens adults and ruins children. Even his wife, in a lavish portrait, appears sinister: one hand alive, the other moribund in an arsenical glove.
Dix’s paintings are fiercely indigestible; you are meant to look at the livid cheeks and poisonous impasto and recoil. He believed in the disruptive power of ugliness. But the climax of this exhibition is all graphic: the sequence of great drawings and etchings of war. Here, Dix turns day to night, life to death and sight to blindness. He imagines what it is like to die beneath collapsing trenches, a storm of explosions or another’s man’s sodden corpse.
Sunrise shows a vision of bright skeletons; night is the condition through which survivors crawl for refuge. The images, in which pale figures – or body parts – loom like creatures on the ocean’s floor, seem to be made out of darkness itself. White lines bristle like sparklers, black shapes seethe in ghostly grey, and in their spectacular nihilism – Dix is Goya’s true descendant – they go against the comforts of narrative. There is no end to these scenes, no logic, subplot or climax. You must keep looking, but you want to look away. What holds the eye to the page is Dix’s astonishingly urgent inventiveness.
“Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-33”
Through October 15, 2017
By Laura Cumming, Reprint from TheGuardian.com, 25 June 2017, © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.