Art at its most de­lib­er­ately ob­scene

Weimar Ger­many’s world of chaos, corsets and blood­stained crosses de­lights Jonathan Jones

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - Bold, in­tel­lec­tual and chal­leng­ing … Re­clin­ing Woman on a Leop­ard Skin, 1927, by Otto Dix

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

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