Art at its most deliberately obscene
Weimar Germany’s world of chaos, corsets and bloodstained crosses delights Jonathan Jones
When Hana Koch died in 2006, she left her family a modern German treasure hidden in an old altarpiece in her Bavaria home. Koch had survived the extremes and the violence of Germany in the previous century and through it all kept with her an extraordinary artistic document of innocence and love. For Koch was the stepdaughter of the great artist Otto Dix and, in 1925, when she was five years old, he made her a beautiful, handpainted picture book full of his joyously original visions of German folktales, biblical stories and comical monsters.
The Bremen Town Musicians – from the Brothers Grimm – and Saint Christopher Carrying Christ are among the traditional German childhood images Dix reinvents in his Bilderbuch für Hana (Picture Book for Hana). It went on public view in Germany for the first time last year and is now at Tate Liverpool. This is an exhibition about the doomed Weimar Republic, the attempt at German democracy born out of defeat in the first world war and effectively ended, in the voting booth, when the Nazis were elected in 1933. The Weimar years were socially and politically chaotic – and artistically brilliant.
No artist embodies Weimar more pungently than Dix. If you think this era’s reputation for “decadence” is a stereotype created by the musical Cabaret, think again. Liza Minnelli had nothing on the original Weimar characters portrayed by Dix, from his chubby, flamboyant art dealer Johanna Ey to a rich gallery of sexual experimenters and prostitutes. One 1922 watercolour, in which a woman poses in a corset and stockings flourishing a whip in front of a bloodstained cross, is called Dedicated to Sadists. In a small, intense oil painting that pays homage to the kinky German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach, the goddess Venus is naked except for long, black leather gloves.
What kind of society is Dix painting? How are we meant to respond? One answer lies in his terrifying series of prints, Der Krieg (The War), exhibited here in its chilling entirety. Dix had been in the first world war as a machine gunner and his memories flash back as nightmare glimpses of rotting bodies and worm-eaten skulls in this masterpiece of anti-war art, first published in 1924. Yet even his friends on the left advised him to leave out one shocking scene. It shows a German soldier assaulting a nun.
Dix came back from the hell of the trenches and plunged into a vision of the Weimar years that is totally cynical and deliberately obscene. Yet is it pessimistic? Is he prophesying disaster or celebrating freedom? For me, this art is not at all depressing. As the wonderful picture book he made for his stepdaughter shows – and there’s other touching evidence of his tender family life here, too – Dix is a happy artist. He has a huge, Hogarthian appetite for humanity. His art asks us to question what decadence means, for the outrageous erotic mayhem he depicts expresses a belief in social progress and liberation. The woman gazing at us as she rests amid furs and silks in his 1927 painting Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin is bold, intellectual and challenging, like his characterful art dealer Ey.
The world of Weimar nightlife that explodes in Dix’s frenzied dada paintings is apocalyptic yet subversive, and looks forward in its freedoms to our own age. It is not a bleak catalogue of the damned. He probably thought Germany was headed for a communist revolution, not nazism.
This is two exhibitions in one. Parallel with Dix, in a separate gallery, the photographs of August Sander take a cooler, more distanced, and perhaps, tragically, more accurate view of Germany society in the 1920s.
The glamorously fierce Dix appears in one of Sander’s monochrome portraits. He is just one face among many, no more or less important than the pastry chef, children, blind people, industrialists, communists and students who are also in this apparently endless array of Weimar Germans. Sander’s sharp focus on faces and clothes, against evocatively blurred landscapes or rooms, makes us see people who lived almost a century ago with undimmed immediacy. Yet their formal, unsmiling poses and inclusion in a vast series – there are 146 photographs from the immense unfinished project People of the Twentieth Century – make it clear that, far from romantic celebrations of the individual, these portraits aspire to a scientific analysis of the whole of German society.
In a 1929 essay introducing the first book of Sander’s photographs, the novelist Alfred Döblin claimed they “provide superb material for the cultural, economic history of the last 30 years”. And so they do. If Dix takes us inside his own psyche, Sander is a Marxist historian of the social world. Everyone is seen as representative of a group, class or gender. It is like looking at a collection of pickled specimens, wondrous, strange and full of scientific information.
The most telling difference with Dix is that, while the painter sees sex and rebellion everywhere, Sander sees a profoundly conservative society. His photographs take in urban creative types – as he classes them – such as Dix or the composer Paul Hindemith. But he also dwells on rural Germans who look stiff and archaic in their formal habit. Farmers and their children, a rural teacher posing in hunting gear – we look into their eyes and wonder what they were doing a few years later when the Nazis came to power.
Sander reveals a Germany in which Weimar sophisticates like Dix were very much in a minority. The formal tone of his pictures is not a mere style. It suggests that far from debauching at Berlin clubs, most Germans were still stuck in formal and hierarchical social customs.
In other words, this is the rigid, regimented society Dix and other dadaists rebelled against. Which vision is true? We know, of course. The social and sexual experiments of Weimar would be swept away by the Nazis. The obsession with order that underlies Sander’s Germany would make the people in his pictures follow orders to the end. Dix and Sander survived to bear witness – there are pictures here in which Sander records victims of the Holocaust – and many years later, Hana Koch’s album would come to light, with its vibrant vision of a better Germany, in a land that had finally fulfilled its promise.
If you think this era’s reputation for decadence was formed by the musical Cabaret, think again
Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 is at Tate Liverpool until 15 October