In Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926, Lottie Whalen sees both an insouciant New Woman and Dix’s embodiment of a dangerously dissolute era. Recalling a recent encounter with the painting in Paris, she reflects on the freedoms we stand to lose in the time of Covid-19.
I first saw her around fifteen years ago. The circumstances escape me now. Perhaps a book I’d found in a charity shop, with a title I didn’t understand but an alluring front cover. I was guileless but hungry for colour, for experiences beyond what life in a grey Northern city could offer. Or so it seemed then, through a haze of teenage ennui.
At first glance, I wasn’t sure if she was a woman or a man. The severe cropped haircut, large hands, and monocle were distinctly masculine, yet the boxy checked dress, clashing red lips, and ornate ring hinted otherwise. I looked for the title: Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden.
Something about her androgyny and nonchalant gaze both disturbed and attracted me. She was ugly, by conventional beauty standards, but her attitude rendered those standards strangely irrelevant. Back then, I didn’t know much about art, but I knew enough to find a portrait of a woman who was fully clothed – defiant, closed off – somewhat unusual.
Feminism wasn’t a word I understood very well at that time either. It was a fusty, frumpy word; an abstract concept I couldn’t connect to my life, or to that of any of the other women I knew. Feminism wasn’t a word that would make you popular, desirable – wasn’t that what everyone was supposed to want?
When we met face to face, years later at the Pompidou in Paris, I felt I understood her better. By then I’d cut my hair short too, in defiance of something I couldn’t quite define. She was even more startling up close: dizzyingly distorted perspective; the jarring fuchsia and red tones creating an almost violent discord; the uncanny fleshiness of a sagging stocking; yellow teeth set in nauseating contrast with vivid painted lips and wan, waxy skin; her name inscribed on the box of matches. In my memory, she looked the viewer straight in the eye, unflinching; when standing in front of her, I noted with surprise that her gaze was averted, fixed somewhere off to the side of the viewer, beyond reach.
I took a postcard home to mark the moment that I had made it there, to the Pompidou Centre, to Paris. In truth, Paris had been a bitter disappointment – a maze of harsh, hostile streets where men with hungry eyes leered and whistled. There is a name for the feeling that one’s experience of Paris does not live up to the long-nurtured fantasy: Paris syndrome. Symptoms range from tachycardia and vomiting, to feelings of persecution and depersonalisation.
As the postcard followed me through the years, from one rented room to another, I’ve puzzled over the painting. Specifically, I’ve wondered about the relationship between the artist Otto Dix and his muse Sylvia von Harden. What was Dix’s intention with such a harsh representation that manages to be both grotesque and yet strangely alluring? Does he mean to celebrate the liberated and unconventional von Harden, or lampoon her? Legend has it that when Dix first spotted her in the street, he chased after her, begging:
“I must paint you! I simply must! … You are representative of an entire epoch!…an epoch concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition.”
Dix’s attitude is one of uneasy ambivalence. What does it mean for a woman to sum up an entire epoch? In the portrait, von Harden appears as a smoking, cocktail-sipping New Woman, a professional journalist and all round cool customer. Yet, by presenting her as the living embodiment of a dangerously dissolute era, Dix surely dehumanises and objectifies her. Less a liberated modern woman, von Harden instead becomes that age old stereotype: woman as symbol of decadence and decay. I think of John Berger’s formative Ways of Seeing, where he argues that power is extrinsic for men, but intrinsic for women:
‘A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you and for you. By contrast, a woman’s presence…defines what can and cannot be done to her…Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it is an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura’
Looking at her now, lounging on my bookshelf, I envy the casual insouciance with which she sits in the corner of a café, observing her fellow night owls. The days when we can once again wander the city, people watching and bar hopping, seem far away. Yet the Portrait also offers a distorted mirror that reflects the anxieties and catastrophes of our own times. From one epoch in crisis to another, von Harden reminds us how fragile our freedoms are, liable to be violently swept away by some passing political storm. What’s more, she urges us to question them: whether our freedoms are truly democratic, meaningful, and ethical or whether, like the Portrait itself, they are intrinsically ambivalent. Dix offers the viewer a subversive perspective but, despite his unconventional muse, this is still the male gaze. I leave the postcard up on the shelf above my desk as both a celebration of resisting conventionality and a warning: in our own turbulent, terrifying times, we must look the viewer in the eye as we take control of our narratives.
About Lottie Whalen
Lottie Whalen is a writer and researcher based in Hackney, East London. In 2017 she completed an AHRC funded PhD at Queen Mary University of London entitled ‘Mina Loy’s Designs for Modernism’, which explored the avant-garde poet, artist, and designer Mina Loy’s multimedia art practice and decorative aesthetic. She is currently working on a book based on her thesis. Lottie is the co-founder of Decorating Dissidence, an interdisciplinary arts project that explores the political, aesthetic & conceptual qualities of feminine-coded arts from modernism to the contemporary. It brings together art practitioners, makers, curators, activists and academics to break down disciplinary boundaries and find new ways to critically engage with feminist art history. As part of this project, she curates exhibitions, workshops and arts events, and is an editor for Decorating Dissidence’s online magazine. Their current digital project, Take Dada Seriously, celebrates and challenges Dada. Lottie’s forthcoming book on the women of New York Dada will be published by Reaktion in 2021. Find Lottie on twitter at: @DrLottieW or email email@example.com
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts now wants to open the series up to other writers. Is there a postcard or a work of art that speaks to you at this time? If so, send your submissions to Rochelle via firstname.lastname@example.org and see here for more information.