With Tate Liverpool’s Portraying a Nation exhibition showcasing Germany during the rise of Hitler, Niloo Sharifi looks at the work of Dix and Sander with one eye on the current rise of the far right.
- Lead image: Otto Dix, 1891-1969; Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor), 1924; Otto Dix Stiftung © DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung
Tate Liverpool’s exhibition of two artists working at the time of Germany’s inter-war years reveals a period of extremes.
The exhibition is split between the photo portraits of August Sander, and the paintings of Otto Dix. Sander’s work is taken from his collection of prints titled People Of The 20th Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts), a visual record of the German people during his lifetimes. His aim was to create an imprint of society- in his own words, “a physiognomic image of an age,” and a catalogue of “all the characteristics of the universally human.”
His photographs have an archetypal quality which is underlined by his division of subjects into seven main categories: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People. These are then subdivided further: “Elegant Woman”, “Philosopher”, “Farming type”, and his subjects are often left anonymous, becoming nameless representatives for a certain sort of person.
Some of his subjects almost look familiar— there are the two sleep-deprived Bohemians (Willi Bongard, Gottfried Brockmann), languidly hunched over themselves and facing each other, as though caught in the midst of excitable chatter that feels so important. You can imagine them in our time after a two day bender, discussing whether it’s preferable to fight a hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck.
Then there is Student, 1926 who poses capriciously with a hand in his tailored pocket, with high cheekbones and what looks like plucked eyebrows, emanating a sumptuous, healthy glow of wealth reminiscent of Made in Chelsea’s Mark Francis. Certain famous faces are named; Parliamentarian Johannes Scheerer stares grim-faced, holding an umbrella pointing straight upwards in a phallic show of confidence that betrays its own insecurity, like a large car.
Sander captures a moment when the Weimar Republic is losing its grasp on the nation to extremists in the chaos of Germany’s post-war economic downward spiral. These extremists also feature in the exhibition- there are uniformed Nazi officers and sheepish looking, still-spotty Hitler Youth.
The society he portrays feels like a different dimension to the one seen in Otto Dix’s paintings. Sander’s photographic encyclopedia of personalities is mostly populated by socially conservative people, and his documentary-style approach has a democratising effect.
Setting his subjects in uncontrived environments, the camera’s sharp focus stays somehow neutral. On the other hand, Dix’s lurid, brightly coloured portraits border on caricature. He is drawn to scenes from a luxuriously squalid underworld of debauchery, or liberation, depending on your perspective.
Included in the collection are a series of illustrations Dix made for his niece, featuring figures from classic German folklore. Despite their aesthetic differences, Dix and Sander were thought of as embodying two sides of a single movement: New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit).
The term was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, and referred to a group of artists who were reacting to the cosy idealism of expressionism and its soft-focus view of life with a brutally realist approach. Hartlaub describes the two dimensions of the movement in terms of a left wing and a right wing. The left partakes in a version of magical realism- they “tear the objective form of the world of contemporary facts and represent current experience in its tempo and fevered temperature”. This describes Dix.
The exhibition includes his chaotic, cartoonish sketches of war. The image of a horse on its back, legs splayed in the air, stuck in my mind; a powerful image of the uncontrollable loss and filth that is final reality of any battle tactic conceived by men standing in rooms.
His portraits of marginal figures form a counterpoint to the monochrome morbidity of the war sketches. His joyous, celebratory portraits of sex workers and gamblers, musicians and androgynous figures suggest a people determined to match the proliferation of death with the proliferation of pleasure with a battle-like fervour.
Dix does not shy away from politics, or from politicising his subjects. In a memorable portrait of Karl Krall, a jeweler (1923) he depicts the middle-aged man in almost burnt-flesh colours, his bald pate shining; he appears to wear a corset and his hands are carefully posed on his hips, suggesting the feminine form. A prominent vein snaked across his temple, a motif repeated a cross a few of Dix’s portraits. Does it suggest an ever-present tension, at odds with shows of self-expression and ease?
Sanders leaves his subjects comparatively untouched. Maybe this impartial eye is what saved Sanders from scrutiny under Nazi regime, while Dix’s art was persecuted, several of his works being seized and shown in the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Sanders does not want to interfere with his subjects’ most natural state of self-representation. These are not candid photographs, but they don’t feel designed. Sanders treats each individual with sensitivity. The faces of his subjects, who look directly into the lens, are in sharp focus.
Sander believed “we can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled.” Indeed it’s easy to spend hours trying to read those still-vital faces, trying to imagine whether they have a sense of humour, what their voices sound like.
In Sander‘s later portraits, National Socialists look squarely into the camera with a self-assurance that seems out of time with the uncertain faces of the Bohemians. His light touch inspires a natural compassion in the viewer, but this becomes a complicated experience when his subjects are those we would rather see as monstrous than human.
The Nazi regime has become the benchmark of evil in our modern consciousness. We have almost transformed them into a rhetorical device – if you want to accuse someone of immorality, or dictatorship, compare them to the Nazis (see “feminazi”, “grammar Nazi”).
You might have seen the phrase ‘literal Nazis’ being used – the distinction is needed when the term has been diluted to the point that it can be placed after any word to indicate someone is a bit over the top about something.
Sander‘s subjects include high-ranking Nazi officers. Rendered in black and white, they feel safely removed from our reality, stamped firmly in a page we turned long ago. Their uniforms look like costumes from a film looking back from a future in which Nazis have heavily featured as villains in horror films.
A quick google of ‘Nazi zombies’ reveals a positive sub-genre in which Nazis are made caricatures of themselves — there’s Dead Snow, Angry Nazi Zombies, Zombie Massacre, Nazis at the Centre of the Earth, to name a few. One of this year’s most highly rated thrillers, The Green Room, shows a punk band struggle to escape a Nazi house of horrors, after they play a gig at a neo-Nazi rally to make rent. The white band members are brazen when they first arrive, playing The Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks Fuck Off as their opening number. By the time they understand how ideology translates to action, the murdering has already begun.
The plot of The Green Room an eerie microcosm of what is happening in America today. Liberal leftists ridiculed Donald Trump and the “alt-right” until his influence was no laughing matter, underestimating him the same way the British political establishment underestimated the appeal of Nigel Farage and UKIP. Ever since, the gap between genuine news headlines and Onion articles has become disturbingly narrow.
Take, for example Mother Jones’ now infamous headline for their profile of Richard Spencer: “Meet the dapper white nationalist riding the Trump wave”. The bloated cabaret icon that we have made of the Nazis is useful for those who do not wish, for whatever reason, to condemn racism outright. It allows us to think someone isn’t “all-bad”.
But cruelty is not just the absence of humanity; evil does not always announce itself with a skull and cross-bones. Sometimes it can take the form of a clean-shaven man with a dudebro haircut and a well-tailored suit jacket. After all, the Nazis wore Hugo Boss uniforms.
At first, it is jarring to recognise the humanity of the Nazi officers and the recently pubescent young followers in Sander‘s pictures— to realise they must have felt affection for something, had a favourite song. But this is only because we have been taught to think of Nazis as something other than human, and Nazi ideology as an old disease we are now naturally immune to.
But when Hitler was on the rise, American media made mistakes it has clearly not learned from. John Broich for the Smithsonian describes the media’s primary strategy for ‘defanging’ Hitler: “By portraying him as something of a joke. He was a ‘nonsensical’ screecher of ‘wild words’ whose appearance, according to Newsweek, ‘suggests Charlie Chaplin.’ His ‘countenance is a caricature’. He was as ‘voluble’ as he was ‘insecure’, stated Cosmopolitan.”
In the months before Trump’s election, American media was just as short-sighted. Time Magazine showed Trump dripping with the word ‘Meltdown’ superimposed, with a breakdown of Trump’s political blunders as the cover story.
In October, the New York Times had a cartoonish Trump as a beauty pageant contestant on their cover, as though exaggerating his weight, stripping him down and dressing him like a woman in order to discredit him does anything more than reinforce the poisonous power structures Trump partook in when he chose to deride Miss Universe’s appearance.
These papers position themselves against Trump, but in exaggerating his monstrous features they highlight some of their own. The posture of wide-eyed incredulousness; the tendency to meet with ridicule threats which minorities have no choice but to take seriously; the disguising of neutrality as journalistic integrity.
Trump’s assertion in the immediate aftermath of the murder of three counter-protestors in an act of white nationalist terrorism that occurred at a Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, that “you had people that were very fine people on both sides”, should shock no one. Trump’s victory should have shocked no one. The New York Daily News‘ August call for Trump’s resignation from the campaign read “This isn’t a joke anymore”.
But for many it never was.
And for some, like Tina Fey, it remains a joke.
With this in mind, Sander‘s work imparts the troubling sense that we are not looking into the impossible land of the past, but at something altogether more plausible.
Yet journalists working for mainstream newspapers maintain a tone of disbelief when they talk about neo-Nazis. The Guardian’s long-read by Lois Beckett on neo-Nazism in Trump’s America is peppered with personal details about her subjects. “Two of the neo-Nazis ordered chicken nuggets” she writes, and at another point describes Matthew Heimbach, the man who was arrested for attacking a black counter-protester at a Trump rally, as having ‘the cheerful bearing of a youth pastor’. Another neo-Nazi, Gabe, is ‘diffident and a little shy, with long eyelashes and the white power tattoos on his cheek.’ The author aims to highlight a juxtaposition between white supremacy and Christianity, or beauty, or sympathetic traits. But this only works if we blind ourselves to the fact that ordinary people are perfectly capable of violence and hatred.
Racism is not happening in some distant, hypothetical realm but under your racist uncle’s roof, at Christmas dinner, on the streets between clubs, at the park. It is a co-operative effort, a collaboration if you will, of aggressive racists and those who won’t defend their victims. In Liverpool, we enjoy views of buildings built with money from the slave-trade while communities of colour remain underfunded.
American art critic A. I. Philpot said of the exhibition in the Boston Globe, “There are probably plenty of people – art lovers – in Boston, who will side with Hitler in this particular purge.” Dix’s work in the next room goes further than documenting diversity, celebrating experimentation and marginal figures.
They seized over 5,000 works deemed ‘degenerate’, and displayed them with slogans painted on the walls, warped echoes of Sander‘s categorisations, such as ‘Revelation of the Jewish racial soul’, ‘An insult to German womanhood’, ‘Madness becomes method’, ‘Nature as seen by sick minds’, and ‘The ideal—cretin and whore’. These last three categories feel uncomfortable close to Sander‘s elaborated subtitle for the ‘The Last People’: ‘idiots, the sick, the insane, and the dying.’
More than two million people attended the Degenerate Art Exhibition, more than more than twice number of people who visited the Great German Art Exhibition that followed soon after. Clearly, appreciation can only be expressed as long as ownership and superiority remain unthreatened.
Frederick Birchall, reporting in Berlin for The New York Times, described Hitler as “a vegetarian [who] neither drinks nor smokes”.
Another Times journalist, Anne O’Hare McCormick, again emphasises Hitler’s humanity. He is “a rather shy and simple man… His voice is as quiet as his black tie and his double-breasted black suit…. Herr Hitler has the sensitive hand of the artist”.
UK’s Home and Gardens fawned over Hitler’s mountain home, showing him looking statesmanlike beside his dog and his staff who are “not so much servants as loyal friends”.
Sometimes “the Squire himself [Hitler] will stroll through the woods into hamlets” nearby, where he “gives a ‘Fun Fair’ to the local children.”
Cordell Hull, Secretary of State at the time of Hitler’s rise to power feared “exaggerated reports may prejudice the friendly feelings between the peoples of the two countries and be of doubtful service to anyone.”
The contemporary normalising of Hitler in the 1930s seems shocking today. But the far right are being normalised now.
Theresa May on Trump “Yes, I look forward to working with president-elect Trump. The American people have elected him as the next president of the United States… Britain and the United States have an enduring and special relationship based on the values of freedom, democracy and enterprise.”
Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933 runs at Tate Liverpool until 15th October.
All images used on loan from Tate Liverpool.