Part of Tate Liverpool’s summer offer is an exhibition of two halves, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933. The display begins with the work of August Sander, a German photographer who documented the population of Germany during the interwar years, followed by a presentation of work by Otto Dix from the same period. Where exhibitions about the Weimar Republic may seem overdone, Portraying a Nation, particularly through simple and clever curatorial techniques and the display of Sanders’ work before the visitor’s encounter with Dix’s highly familiar paintings, brings a welcome break to the usual grand and nostalgic exhibition narratives addressing the interwar period.
Starting in 1919, the first half of this exhibition chronologically presents Sander’s ‘People of the 20th Century’, which he described as a ‘physiognomic image of an age’. This technique may seem simple, however it is surprisingly effective coupled with the easy-to-read hand-written wall text, which provides detailed context of the crippling effects of reparations on Germany and the frighteningly easy steps towards dangerous cultural discrimination and patriotism.
Though Sander was attempting an unbiased document of German society through this photographic collection, you cannot help feeling disturbed by the photographs of travellers and members of the Communist party side-by-side with photographs of Nazi soldiers; victim next to persecutor. The series finishes suddenly with hauntingly objective photographs of Sander’s son, who was locked up for being part of the Communist party and died just before the end of the war.
In contrast to the quiet power of the previous half, the presentation of Dix’s work is much more hectic. Dix is one of the most famous artists of the interwar period, his emotive paintings often held up as a record of the extravagances of the Weimar Republic – as Tate’s brochure for this exhibition states, Dix’s work reveals ‘the cracks in the surface of the “Golden Twenties’’’. However, where the curators have opened up the conservative and structured collection of Sander’s photographs to new interpretations, they have had to group and slice Dix’s huge body of work into small, slightly clunky sections. In one uncomfortable step, you move from Dix’s paintings of brothels to his series ‘The War’, encompassing trench scenes and war dead.
The juxtaposition of these two very different forms of documentation of the same society – cool and calm photography versus emotional and frantic painting, does not truly help our overall understanding of the nation portrayed; in fact they seem to contradict each other. Apart from the two artists’ mutual contacts and time frames, there do not seem to be many other unifying themes. Yet, in an age of sensationalism in the media, the refreshing coolness of the photographs and clearly presented historiography alongside Sander’s work allows us to understand the real people at the centre of the tumultuous interwar years in Germany.
Portraying a Nation is open at Tate Liverpool until 15 October.
Jenny Gleadell is a Birmingham-based curator and arts writer. She currently works at The Wilson, Cheltenham.