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Review: Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933, August Sander and Otto Dix

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933, August Sander and Otto Dix
Tate Liverpool
, until  15th October 2017

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

This is an exhibition that received rave reviews for all the wrong reasons. It deserved rave reviews, don’t get me wrong, but Otto Dix is not the highlight of Tate Liverpool’s exploration into early 20th Century Germany. August Sander is.

What speaks loudest in this exhibition is the staging of the images. This is absolutely not a photographer trying to capture “lived life”, it is one being honest. Photographs from every month, of every year, from peace, through war, through peace time, and back into war, exhibit people of all creeds on a level playing field, created by nothing other than self-consciousness.

The launch of Bauhaus and its later resettlement, the rise of the German Expressionists, and the embodiment of modern classical music are shown in the same lens as bakers, exterminators, and S.S. Captains. All with the same nervous stare, just hoping that the photograph captures their best side. Everybody in these images looks human.

Crucial to this exhibition (August Sander‘s half of it) is the reflection of the neutrality in the accompanying text and time-line. A fourteen year history of Germany presented through fact, not opinion. The reason for its importance is that the neutrality forces the critique, the judgement, the reflection on war, terror, beauty and the foundations of modern culture to lie with me. I have to stand here, in front of these portraits, and make my mind up. The photographs, accompanied by the paired down hand-written histories on the wall put me in a rare place of judging the actions of others, very literally on face value. And it’s moving.

Where photography is called ‘documentary’, and has to be pushed to be called ‘art’, this reaches that by going in the opposite direction. It is documentary photography is its purest, not finding stereotypical scenes and calling them typical.

I write this and I sit here with the show, and I can’t find the words to reflect on the contrasts between atrocity and beauty. I can only urge anyone reading this to put themselves through this experience. It is both peaceful and pensive, and curated expertly.

By stark contrast, Otto Dix went out to shock. A vision of war and terror, with very little joy in between, satirising and stereotyping his subjects as he goes. Ironically, the artist who was a leading light for what is now called New Objectivity, shows a particularly subjective portrayal of his country. It is an incredible contrast to the reflection in the other room, and is very much a view of one man’s Germany, rather than a Germany you could place yourself in.

It is those contrasts that make this exhibition worth your time in its entirety though. An artist with no particular style, Otto Dix raced between genres and ideas faster than I imagined possible, and the result is an exhibition that exhibits a version of the artist very different to one I knew. All this, while a photographer I’ve never heard of steals the show through nothing other than complete objectivity and continuity of style.

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 is one of the most moving and exhilarating exhibitions I have seen for a long time, but I advise it with a note of caution: Don’t expect to be uplifted, there is very little joy. This is an exhibition of passive neutrality that puts judgemental responsibilities on you the viewer.