Portraying A Nation: Germany 1919-33 (Review)

First published online by Apollo Magazine on 17 August 2017

Today we can’t help but see the Weimar Republic in terms of its tragic denouement: the rise of Hitler and all that followed. But for those living there, the present was already insecure, often brutal, and as the historian Eric Hobsbawm would later recall, ‘unbelievably exciting, sophisticated, intellectually and politically explosive’. And it demanded new forms of expression.

These included, most famously, the plays of Bertolt Brecht, German Expressionist film, Dada, cabaret, and Marlene Dietrich. But there was another tendency that emerged at this moment, just as revolutionary in its way. It was known loosely as the Neue Sachlichkeit, meaning ‘New Objectivity’ or ‘New Sobriety’. Artists under its sway aimed to understand their time through its people – staring the zeitgeist right in the face, as it were. And, as an impressive exhibition at Tate Liverpool shows, they’ve left us with a remarkable window on to the era too.

‘Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933’ tells the story of the Weimar Republic through the work of just two artists: the photographer August Sander, and the painter and printmaker Otto Dix. It’s a fantastic one-two punch. Though very different in both medium and temperament, they shared a determination to seek out and represent every recess of German society, and thereby to expose some deeper truth.

The first half of the show is devoted to Sander’s astonishing photographic project, ‘People of the Twentieth Century’. Over four decades, Sander set out to document and classify the entire social structure, accumulating thousands of images. 140 of them are on show here. In stark focus, surrounded by the paraphernalia of their daily lives, the subjects gaze passively from the centre of each portrait. They have no names, only labels placing them in Sander’s taxonomy of ‘archetypes’. Descriptors such as ‘Village Schoolteacher’, ‘Working Class Mother’, and ‘Beggar’ are assigned to the categories ‘Classes and Professions’, ‘The Woman’, and ‘The Last People.’

Running alongside these photographs, which wind around three rooms, the curators have supplied a timeline of Weimar Germany. You suspect Sander would have approved, since this adds to the impression of mere individuals lost in the maelstrom of history. It’s doubtful, however, that this sangfroid brought the photographer any comfort when that history bore down on him. In 1933 his son Erich, a Communist, was sent to prison, where he would eventually die. At this point Sander’s portraits begin to feel despairingly muted, as they receive labels like ‘National Socialist’ and ‘Victim of Persecution’.

This brings us to the second half of the show: the paintings, drawings and etchings of Otto Dix. If Sander has given us all the background we could ask for, Dix now gives us the foreground, in vivid and often disturbing detail. His was a different sort of ‘objectivity’, an amoral fascination with the beauty and potential of a society in tumult. His mission, most stunningly expressed in his lurid, crystalline style of portraiture, was ‘to expose ugliness and life undiluted’.

As Susanne Meyer-Büser points out in the exhibition catalogue, Dix returned from the First World War as a man on the make and no doubt ambition played a part in his self-styling as ‘proletarian rebel and big-city dandy.’ At any rate, he soon made a name for himself as a nihilistic observer of the demi-monde, as shown by the titles of some etchings Dix sent to an art dealer in 1920: War Cripples, Match Dealer, Sex Murderer, Lady in the Café, Card Players, and Butcher Shop.

In the following years, this cast grew to include bourgeois patrons, intellectuals, and performers, as Dix began churning out his dazzling portraits. He was profoundly inspired by the Old Masters, reviving both their compositional style and painting techniques. This meant placing his subjects proudly in the front and centre of the picture plane, giving them a confrontational air. It also led to his method of ‘glazing,’ a practice involving layers of thin oil paint and tempera, which produced unparalleled lustre and immediacy.

This visual splendour, however, was always for Dix a means of gazing into the souls of his subjects. Whether capturing the woollen texture of a suit in his Portrait of the Photographer Hugo Erfurt with Dog (1926), or rendering, with a painfully delicate brush, each pubic hair of his Nude Girl on a Fur (1932), his paintings show a flair for characterisation that any novelist could admire.

It’s possible to see Sander and Dix as the yin and yang of European modernism in this period. Sander sought to understand the world by imposing order, Dix by flirting with chaos. Both remind us of an actor who we tend to forget is on the stage during these frantic episodes in history: the detached observer, committed only to showing things as they are. I should add that, with over 300 works and many metres of wall text, this exhibition is heavy going. But rarely will you see a period of turmoil and flux brought to life with such depth and lucidity.

The Abstract White Relief

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on Feb 10 2015

‘Abstract white relief’ is not an easy term to get your head around. It can sound highly technical, or positively poetic: three slight and airy words that threaten to float away like a balloon as soon as they are said. Yet this simple sensation of transcendence was precisely the intention of many of the artists who used abstraction and whiteness to transform the ancient medium of relief sculpture during the 20th century. They sought to turn an object in the physical world into a window through it.

A new exhibition at the Dominique Lévy Gallery in London charts the ghostly progress of the abstract white relief through the work of 18 different artists, from the 1930s to the ‘70s and beyond. The show is titled ‘Sotto Voce’, although there is not so much a voice in these works as a sort of visual static – impersonal, monotonous and often unsettling textures and rhythms, with the occasional burst of violence. And they are all white: one cold white artwork after another, set against walls of pigeon grey to amplify their subtle three-dimensionality.


Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief), (1936)
Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief), (1936)


You could, if you were so minded, construct a narrative here, and that would be more or less the narrative of 20th-century art. Two bookends present themselves. On one side is the earliest piece, Henri Laurens’s plaster relief Deux Femmes (1930): here we see the last refuge of the human figure en route to abstraction, its body spread into angular forms and its head, literally, effaced. On the other side, Mira Schendel’s Untitled (XII) from 1986: two white planes and a thin strip of black acrylic paint – all that remains of the relief is a shadow, an idea.

In between the two is a dense web of iconic gestures and interconnected artistic movements, so characteristic of modernism. After Laurens the human figure disappears from the exhibition. In the work of Jean Arp it is dispersed into an arrangement of vaguely organic shapes, like Cubist body parts spread on a table. The early reliefs of Ben Nicholson, on the other hand, replace nature altogether with circles, squares and rectangles.

Aesthetically speaking, the different approaches of Arp and Nicholson to the abstract white relief can be traced like parallel paths into the heart of the century. Arp’s curvaceous approach, still suggestive of life, can be felt in the Achromes of Piero Manzoni – tactile patterns made by the action of kaolin on canvas – or in the furtive curling of wire in Pol Bury’s Erectile (1959). The colder geometric lines of Nicholson can be traced to Günther Uecker’s prickly square of white nails (Untitled, 1967), or the angular monoliths of Sergio de Camargo.

Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958)
Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958)

But ‘Sotto Voce’ itself does not suggest any such narrative, nor does it privilege any great works. In fact, there is no information at all on the walls, no chronological order, and where there are two works by the same artist they are separated from each other. This is mischievous curation, since in many instances works from different generations, continents and artistic backgrounds appear similar enough to be mistaken for each other.

But paradoxically this lack of organisation reflects more honestly the history of the abstract white relief. The medium did not progress along simple lines of influence, but acted instead as a gravitational force that achieved critical mass in the middle of the century, attracting artists to the power and simplicity of this aesthetic gesture. Abstract white reliefs cropped up across Western Europe in avant-garde groups such as Nul and Group Zero, who cross-pollinated and formed an extended network with artists in North and South America, eventually laying the ground for Minimalism and, to an extent, Conceptualism.

Yet, it remains tempting to say that this exhibition has a centre, and that is the yawning abyss ofLucio Fontana’s slashed canvases from the seminal ‘Concetto spaziale’ series, made during the 1960s. Not only was Fontana’s stark new dimension symbolic of the movement away from the picture and towards the mental act, his accompanying discourse of ‘the void’ – which he spread personally across continents and generations – describes the appeal of the abstract white relief.

That was an appeal of escape, from the daunting questions of post-figurative art, and from the brutality of mid 20th-century history more generally. Its essence is vagueness and distilled optimism: Fontana spoke of man as ‘pure spirit’, and of a ‘philosophy of nothing’, which was, however, ‘a creative rather than a destructive nothing.’ This language makes itself broad enough to capture the anxiety of the contemporary zeitgeist, while simultaneously offering the sense of a blank state, a fresh start.

Whiteness and abstraction were tools for the ritual scrubbing away of a complicated and compromised physical world, leaving a medium whose raised, textured or punctured surfaces invited the consideration of something – anything – more pure beyond.

Erling Kagge: The Art of Adventure

This article was first published online by Wallpaper* Magazine on 1 Jun 2015

Around the waterfront in Oslo, you can experience what the director of Norway’s Institute for Contemporary Art has called the city’s ‘dynamic moment’. Scaffolding signals a new wave of cultural destinations that will join existing gems such as the Opera House, the ambitious Ekeberg sculpture park, and a high concentration of artist-run spaces.

Beside the Oslofjord is the sweeping glass roof of the Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum, which now houses an intriguing collection of contemporary art, titled Love Story. It belongs to Arctic explorer, lawyer, publisher, and all-round thrill-seeker Erling Kagge.

Having sailed repeatedly across the Atlantic, conquered the ‘Three Poles’ – North, South, and the summit of Everest – and reached the cover of Time magazine, Kagge began to seek challenges from the world of art. The result is a collection that emphasises youthful anarchy, pop euphoria, and probing post-conceptual artists.

Kagge’s collection includes comprehensive bodies of Raymond Pettibon, Franz West, Tauba Auerbach, Trisha Donnelly, Sergej Jenson, Klara Lidén and Wolfgang Tillmans. In a book he has published for the exhibition, A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art, Kagge compares collecting to his exploits as an explorer. He likes to gamble on artists early in their careers, buying them in big quantities, and moving on when they become established.

The main theme of Kagge’s collection is not a theme at all, but an unresolved quality. ‘I find it difficult to love what I understand. Great art to me is strange’, he says, ‘I strongly believe you sometimes have to break rules to feel free’. He likes artists who embody their work, and has a special affinity for Trisha Donnelly: ‘It is as though her personality has taken form’.

While most people who turn to collecting because they’ve done everything else have terrible taste, Kagge’s boldness and curiosity have served him well.