Review: ‘Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933’ and ‘Aleksandra Mir: Space Tapestry Faraway Missions’
Written by Matthew Smith
Tate Liverpool is hosting two new exhibitions that chart the evolution of German society in the interwar period and explore the possibilities of space travel.
Through the work of two artists who documented, detailed and explored one of the darkest and dynamic time periods in modern history, this new showcase is a stark reminder of the events that unfolded during the formative years of 20th Century Germany.
Works by pioneering photographer August Sander and New Objective painter Otto Dix are on display at the waterfront venue, and combine well to give a rounded and vivid account of this time period. It is the first time both artists’ work has been displayed together.
As an avid photographer myself, I welcomed the opportunity to visit this exhibition.
The former’s best known series, ‘People of the Twentieth Century’, observes a cross-section of society to present an objective portrait of a nation.
Despite their similarities, and shared heritage, each artist interprets German society in a different way. Sander reflects the inter war period through intimate portraits of a variety of individuals across the social spectrum, whilst Dix illustrates the same period through loud, colourful and abstract art using oil paintings.
Together, more than 300 works from this pivotal point in the country’s history reflect intense poverty and inequality, unsolved issues of peace and war, rapid modernisation, and ignorance and prejudice in the embattled Weimar Republic.
Whilst many may be drawn to the colourful work of Dix, I felt his contemporary’s work resonated more.
Sander’s portraits essentially capture the essence of the evolution of German society during this time. It’s authentic and emotive, especially as the artist focuses on capturing the characteristics of each person, rather than their name.
What is clear is that Sander’s work demonstrates that the struggles of German people during this period were not universal. There was a disjunction between what different groups in society experienced and this fits in well with his classification of subjects.
The portraits that caught my eye included several intimate images of German soldiers and Nazi officers and farming families. Sander brilliantly captures the details, raw emotions and humanity of his subjects and the plight of ordinary Germans. His work has depth and substance and it perfectly cuts through, captures and clarifies the wider context in which the subject of the portrait sits.
His work is representative of the entire era from 1919-1933 and only a few photographs can have that effect, such as A Man on the Moon (1969), Afghan Girl (1984) and The Falling Man (2001).
Tate Liverpool displays Sander’s work in chronological order against a backdrop of political, economic and social changes that defined the tumultuous years of the Weimar Republic: the unsatisfactory outcome of the First World War and the rise of National Socialism, culminating in the Chancellorship of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Overall, I thought the exhibition was a remarkable exploration of arguably the darkest time period of the twentieth century.
These two artists worked in a fascinating time period – the world was changing, the old era was ending and new threats were emerging. Despite these changing circumstances, the common themes woven into their work remain consistent and Tate Liverpool brings them together beautifully.
As for the backdrop in which Sander’s work sits, the way in which it has been designed is fitting and appropriate. The sensitive nature of the portraits is balanced with a hand-painted timeline which meanders around the images and helps to add context.
Stepping back from the portraits you can then see how the portrait forms part of a wider timeline, allowing you to reflect on both the portrait and its context.
There is also the opportunity to view another new exhibition; ‘Aleksandra Mir: Space Tapestry: Faraway Missions’.
Inspired by the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Space Tapestry tells a remarkably visual story of space travel through a hand-drawn monochrome immersive wall hanging.
It’s clear that the artist has approached figures in the field of space in order to accurately express a complex topic through art.
The work sparks debate about scientific events and discoveries and raises interesting questions about the future of space travel.
The work of Mir is being shown simultaneously at Modern Art Oxford and Tate Liverpool and reflects on the relative distances to outer space explored in the work.
Overall, the way Tate Liverpool combined the work of Sander and Dix is truly compelling and accessible. I would highly recommend visiting the two exhibitions – you don’t have to be an art buff to appreciate this fantastic body of work.