Review: Portraying A Nation (Tate Liverpool)

Portraying A Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933

Aleksandra Mir: Space Tapestry

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The Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933) was a tumultuous time in German history. In the aftermath of the First World War the country experimented with parliamentary democracy for the first time, and for a brief period there was among many Germans a sense of optimism and change, rooted in the new political freedoms and increasing financial prosperity. A cultural renaissance was marked by an enthusiasm for free expression and sexual liberation; in Berlin, theatres and nightclubs boomed. But the effects of 1929’s Wall Street Crash spread across the Atlantic, and in the midst of the economic turmoil a brutal, repressive nationalism spearheaded by the Nazis took hold.

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The creeping rise of nationalist sentiment today has led some to make worrying comparisons with the 1930s, which may be one of the reasons the Tate has chosen to stage Portraying A Nation, an extensive, richly rewarding exhibition recalling a pivotal period in European history. The exhibition focuses on the work of photographer August Sander (1876 – 1964) and painter Otto Dix (1891 – 1969). Sander is represented by 144 photographs from his hugely ambitious (and never completed) project ‘People of the 20th Century’, which sought to document German society through portraits of representative individuals. He conceived a system of categories intended to encompass everyone from the poor and the marginalised to the wealthy and the powerful. Within each category are photographs of unnamed people labelled simply by their profession or social identity: ‘Pastry Cook’, ‘Beggar’, ‘Turkish Mousetrap Salesman’ (above), ‘Industrialist’, ‘Circus People’. Some were photographed in Sander’s studio, but we see many of them in their natural setting: in their homes, on farms, in the street.

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Taken together, the photographs add up to a hauntingly evocative picture of another time and another country. But the individual subjects also command our attention, and as we look into their eyes we can’t help but wonder about their past and about what became of them. The First World War had recently ended and a second global conflict wasn’t far away. This historical context is reinforced by the exhibition’s brilliantly effective timeline. Handpainted above and below the photographs, it’s central to the impact they have, encouraging us to step back and consider the social, political and economic changes these people lived through: a developing nightmare of assassinations, hyperinflation, regional uprisings, riots and the increasingly ominous rise of the Nazis (later portraits include an SS captain and a member of the Hitler Youth).

Sander was committed to ‘objectivity’, to depicting people not in an idealized or flattering way but as they actually are, and the artist Otto Dix similarly said that he wanted to show ‘life undiluted’. However his approach was very different, forcing us to contemplate life’s unvarnished reality through images that are deliberately unsettling and disturbing. His experiences as a First World War gunner clearly had a profound effect on him and one of the exhibition’s most striking pieces is a crayon portrait of a storm trooper drawn during the war; the soldier has a skull-like head, as if hovering between life and death. We can also see ‘The War’, a series of fifty etchings completed retrospectively in 1924. These have titles such as ‘Soldiers Killed by Gas’ and ‘Corpse Entangled in Barbed Wire’, and are dominated by ghostly figures and distorted faces.

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A number of Dix’s extraordinarily compelling paintings record the sleazy decadence of Germany’s interwar years, depicting a twilight world of brothels and seedy nightclubs. Their graphic nature could be seen as celebratory of the era’s newfound sexual freedom, but here too there’s often something sinister: lurking in the background of ‘Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin’ (top of page) is a savage, snarling dog. There’s a more prominent canine in ‘Portrait of the Photographer Hugo Erfuth with Dog’ (above), a playfully subversive painting that seems to mock both the sitter (by suggesting that his pet is as interesting and important as he is) and those Renaissance portraits where distinguished personages often have dogs sprawled at their feet. A somewhat unnerving self-portrait (below) makes you suspect Dix might have been a rather intimidating person to meet. Grim-mouthed and with a claw-like right hand, he glares at you suspiciously as you shuffle on to the next exhibit.

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A separate exhibition that’s also just opened at the Tate is Aleksandra Mir’s Space Tapestry, a work about our interest in, and relationship with, outer space. On display is a 40 metre segment of a wall hanging that when completed will be 200 metres long and 3 metres high. Mir is collaborating on the project with twenty five young artists (working to Mir’s design and using Sharpie pens on canvas), and echoes of the Bayeux Tapestry are intentional: the medieval masterpiece includes a depiction of Halley’s Comet, reflecting humanity’s enduring curiosity about the skies above us. Mir’s studio is in Hackney and for this section she’s taken eight locations in her neighbourhood and related them to the planets, with individual canvases bearing such titles as ‘How far from Bethnal Green is Neptune?’ and ‘How far from Columbia Road is Mars?’ Viewing the huge canvases is an immersive experience, so that the act of looking at the works itself underlines the unimaginable vastness of space. ‘Pluto (And From Here You Look So Small)’ interestingly reverses the perspective, reminding us that if the universe were a human being earth would be a mere speck in its eye.

Portraying A Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933 (Admission £12/£10 concessions/Accompanied under 12s free/Under 26s free throughout August) and Aleksandra Mir: Space Tapestry (Admission free) continue at the Tate Liverpool until 15 October 2017

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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.

August Sander: Turkish Mousetrap Salesman 1924 – 30. Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010. ©Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

August Sander: National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture c.1938. Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010. ©Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Otto Dix: Portrait of the Photographer Hugo Erfurth with Dog 1926. ©DACS 2017. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Otto Dix: Self-Portrait with Easel 1926. ©DACS 2017. Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum Düren. Photo: Peter Hinschläger