The most momentous aspect of Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 at Tate Liverpool is also the least distressing. The exhibition as a whole charts painter Otto Dix and photographer August Sandler’s artistic response to the glamour and misery of the Weimar Republic in over 300 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs – works by two preeminent cultural figures of their time, both of whom fell foul of the rise of Nazism in Germany in different ways. Shedding a new light on Dix’s creative output – typically characterised in terms of its harsh realism and acerbic reflections on German society – however, will be six pencil drawing of fantasy creatures and animals that have never before been shown in the UK.
The drawings were created on the back of medical prescription papers, and annotated with names including Mask Fish, Tibetan Turkey Vulture and Argentinian Venomous Scorpion. Made just four years after Dix served in the German army during the First World War, they were helped into being by Martin and Hana Koch, the children of Dr Hans Koch (who’d commissioned a portrait from Dix) and his wife Martha, with whom Dix was having an affair. Unusually, this situation played out amicably, with Dr Koch welcoming Dix and Martha’s relationship – in part because he was himself having an affair with Martha’s sister. The drawings remain a glimpse into the private life of the artist, and a contrast to his typically outward looking approach to painting.
They will go on display alongside a picture book Dix made for the children, also on view in the UK for the first time, a large group of lesser-known watercolours, a series of 50 etchings made in response to his experiences fighting during the First World War and a collection of his more familiar paintings. The pairing of Dix’s works with the photography of August Sander in the gallery is also an original one, but the parallels in subject matter and theme between the two sections of the exhibition are clear. Where, in Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, Dix’s brutally truthful depictions of German society and the horrors of war are brought to the fore, ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander showcases Sander’s attempt to present a collective portrait of a nation at a time of tumultuous cultural and political change through a large-scale timeline of Weimar Germany.
Both of these two artists lost work during the Second World War, with Dix’s paintings confiscated from German museums and some destroyed, and all but 10,000 of 40,000 negatives by Sanders lost to a basement fire. This exhibition, then, feels not only like a unique artistic reflection on a period in history that is becoming ever more relevant today, but also a kind of memento to two men who worked against the odds to capture it. The addition of Dix’s fanciful drawings only serves to illustrate that there may still be moments of personal whimsy in a time of social unrest.