Exhibition Review: Portraying a Nation – Germany 1919–1933

The Weimar Republic, from Germany’s defeat in the First World War to Hitler’s capture of power: a time of economic crisis, hyperinflation, massive unemployment, cultural innovation, increasing nationalism and repression. An exhibition at Tate Liverpool, on until the middle of October, attempts to capture some of these dramatic developments by exhibiting the work of photographer August Sander and painter Otto Dix.

Sander (1876–1964) is represented by photos from his project ‘People of the 20th Century’. In one sense these are straightforward depictions of people who are looking into the camera; they are nearly all anonymous and described in terms of their work (e.g. farmer, doctor, blacksmith). There are photos of blind people and others who are in some way ‘excluded’ from society, such as those with learning difficulties. As the years pass, there are photos of Nazis in uniform and, from 1938, of ‘victims of persecution’. In 1934 Sander’s son Erich was arrested and imprisoned for political activity; he died in prison in 1944. A few photos of political prisoners, taken by Erich, are included.

In 1936 the Nazi authorities had the plates of one of Sanders’ books destroyed and copies removed. A similar fate applied to the work of Dix (1891–1969), who had paintings confiscated and displayed in the exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ from 1937 (though in truth it did not take much to be categorised in this way). Dix had fought in the First World War, and some of his depictions of fighting and the trenches are extremely powerful. He painted some of the many women who had been widowed by the war, also prostitutes, beggars and the rich. Dix refused any political allegiance, and concentrated instead on showing what was going on around him, but, as with Sander, this was inevitably too much for the totalitarian regime he had to live under. His 1937 painting ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ (not included in this exhibition), which contains a caricature of Hitler embodying greed (or perhaps envy), is fairly easy to read nowadays, but Hitler’s moustache was only added after the war, so it was originally not so clear-cut.

A photo of Dix by Sander links the two, but they are already connected in the visitor’s mind by their honest representation of a Germany that was on a path of suffering, from one traumatic war to another.          


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