During lockdown, the study of German expressionist artists George Grosz and Otto Dix, and their portrayals of women, made Claire Thomson recognise the stark truth of the body.
I sat in my flat and dragged and dropped copies of images of German paintings from between 1919 and 1930 into small rectangular slots on my laptop screen. I quite enjoyed curating this imaginary exhibition, as part of my online master’s in art history, which nobody would ever visit.
The images of Weimar Germany which loom in the public imagination are contradictory ones: of decadence and decay, of liberation and looming horror. Here, I chose images painted by George Grosz, Otto Dix, Rudolf Schlichter and Karl Hofer. These images, I argued, portrayed the liberation of Berlin’s ‘New Woman’ as a performative falsehood. They used the body to show the contradictions at work in Berlin society. These paintings were all by men.
The ‘New Woman’ is supposedly liberated, sexually and economically, and enjoys the freedoms afforded to her by this brave new society. In his history of Weimar, Eric D. Weitz argues that these women also adopted new fashions, as well as new lifestyles: “The ‘new woman’ was the most renowned symbol of the sexual revolution of the 1920s. She had short hair, the famed Bubikopf; she was slender, athletic, erotic, and amaternal. She smoked and sometimes wore men’s clothes. She went out alone, had sex as she pleased. She worked, typically in an office or in the arts, and lived for today and for herself.”
The woman in Grosz’s The Best Years (c.1923) sports these styles of liberation, but leans into the body of her husband. Neither partner can be said to look exactly hopeful, but her demeanour and dress suggests more decadence than her husband’s scarred face. Her gaze turns upwards to hope while her wounded husband’s squint remains unfocused.
This juxtaposition of the ‘new woman’ with a wounded man is typical of the work of Dix and Grosz. In Grosz’s 1919 Beauty, Thee I Will Praise!, we see a busy scene in a Berlin bar, with a sex worker in the foreground. She is surrounded by men; some who leer at her and others who are entirely indifferent. She clings to the stole around her shoulders, her glamorous ‘costume’, protecting the facade. The stockings she wears bisect her legs above her knee, creating a fragmented body not unlike those of the war veterans Grosz also painted.
Seemingly liberated women were not the only targets of Grosz and Dix’s disdain. They also positioned veterans next to bureaucrats and other ostensibly unscarred members of society. As Maggie Nelson points out: “One gets the sense, in Dix, that we are all in this situation together – that our desires, injuries, genitals, faces, illnesses, bravado, and vulnerabilities may be pathetic, ugly, inglorious, and often quite terrifying.”
These paintings suggest that all of our bodies are warped to some extent by the societal ills through which they trudge, as they endure our daily lives. Grosz wrote in 1921: “I am again trying to give an absolutely realistic picture of the world… I am trying in my so-called works of art to construct something with a completely realistic foundation.” And he painted its ills on his subjects’ bodies.
We’re all in this together was the maxim doled out in the early stages of the pandemic. In April 2020, Emily Maitlis opened Newsnight with a monologue condemning commentary along these lines as “trite and misleading” and said that the disease was “not a great leveller.” Her point was that this pandemic was more immediately dangerous for those of us who were still required to go to work, many of them bringing things to the doors of those who were able to stay at home.
What could be said to have been common to us all was the fear for our own bodies, and the bodies of those we loved, while the likelihood of that harm coming to fruition varied wildly along lines of class, race and location. As I looked at these paintings from the 1920s on my laptop screen, they felt like loud reminders of how society finds its way to the body, whether immediately or in the end.
I had been lucky enough to see some work by these artists in person before. I spent lunch breaks wandering around Tate Britain’s exhibition, Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany (1919-23), taking in images of ‘lust murder’ and decadence before returning to my desk. I had hoped to travel to see more of them in Germany, but the pandemic put a halt to my plans.
The privilege of working from home on a laptop meant that my every interaction with the outside world came via a screen. My body had very little to do with it. I typed messages, liked photos, joined in with quizzes over Instagram stories. I didn’t hug anybody for four months. My body was in very little danger; no labour was required of it. In my bedroom, looking at a screen or reading, I almost forgot I had a body. The luxurious forgetting of the healthy. Looking at these paintings of spilling flesh on a screen made that forgetting feel absurd.
I worried about my posture after what quickly became years of working from home. I searched YouTube for exercises for upper back pain and nodded slowly, up and down, mirroring the two American men demonstrating on my screen. They were right, it did help.
Kathleen James-Chakraborty argues that members of the Neue Sachlicht [including Grosz and Dix] “continued to paint the body” when some of their contemporaries abandoned conventional portraiture for the clean lines and design-focused work of the Weimar Bauhaus design school. They continued to locate meaning and society in the body and refused to look elsewhere.
But artistic honesty or challenge about society’s effects on the body is not only found in violence or injury. The women painted by Lotte Laserstein with a generosity of noticing defy our gaze, meeting our eyes as we prepare to cast our judgments. Hannah Hoch’s fragmented dancing girls, on the other hand, invite us to throw away our expectations. They deny us the chance to easily parse what is written on the body. Hoch rejects the sanctity of the body, which even Grosz and Dix uphold in their violent paintings. Her work rejects the direct simplicity of placing a maxim upon the body. It creates a bodiliness which is textured and layered with meaning. In denying us the body’s locus of truth, about ourselves and about society, Hoch throws off any aura of authenticity or real life it may have held.
In the September before the pandemic, I stood in front of Otto Dix’s Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden in the Pompidou Centre. It was hotter outside than I expected. I was uncomfortable in my shirt, packed expecting the first of autumn’s chill. Sylvia looks uncomfortable too. The waxiness of the face Dix has given her seems close to melting off. Her tights gather and her dress crumple as her baggy and ill-fitting costume, and her facade, disintegrates in front of us. There’s more than a touch of misogyny here, yet I am drawn to this painting again and again.
Sylvia von Harden was a journalist and wrote a literary column. In many ways she seems to be the epitome of the intellectual new woman. Dix portrays her liberated life as little more than a costume which can be removed at any moment. Sylvia wrote about the exchange with Dix which led to the portrait in a 1959 article ‘Memories of Otto Dix’. Upon Dix’s request to paint her, Sylvia reports to have said, “So, you want to paint my lacklustre eyes, my ornate ears, my long nose, my thin lips; you want to paint my long hands, my short legs, my big feet—things which can only scare people off and delight no-one?” To which Dix replied, “You have brilliantly characterized yourself, and all that will lead to a portrait representative of an epoch concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition.” Eschewing flattery or outward beauty, Dix’s portrait inscribes its commentary on the epoch upon Sylvia’s body.
Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is here too; a direct and daring invitation to the viewer to disregard the sacred boundary between their body and the art they are viewing. As Walter Benjamin said: “[The Dadaists] sought to achieve this uselessness not least by thorough degradation of their material…What they achieved by such means was a ruthless annihilation of the aura in every object they produced.” I doubt this defence – that you were only fulfilling the purpose of the work – would wash with security if someone were to try to use the fountain.
I have always feared tripping in an art gallery and colliding into something priceless. A fear I hoped was irrational was proven not to be so when in 2013, an “unnamed 55-year-old Missouri man” accidentally broke the finger off of a Renaissance statue in Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Our attention is welcome in a gallery but our bodies are not, interfere as they might with the immortality of these works, designed to outlast us.
On my way out, my own reflection interrupts a photograph I try to take of a Francis Picabia painting. But it’s the reflected silhouette of my body interrupting this photograph that allows me to signal that I really care about this art. I care enough to travel here, to wander round the gallery in the heat. I’m here to pay my respect to its aura and perform the ritual of organised looking, and to keep my body a safe distance from the work.
In the bathroom, a woman asked me if I had a sanitary product. I had to ask her to repeat what she asked twice before I understood. I take home a postcard which reads “MON COEUR NE BAT PAS POUR PICABIA”.
Zooming in on a pixelated image on a screen is an experience very far away from any kind of aura ritual performed in a gallery. But the democratising force of reproduction means I can think about these images in the strangest of circumstances. I could study this masters course in a way I could afford, away from the rituals of the brick or spire universities. These images I saw on a screen have burned themselves into my memories of the period. I remember them almost more than I remember the ones I dutifully stopped in front of in galleries.
Something is inevitably lost when these images, paintings by Dix, Grosz, Laserstein or photomontages of Hoch, are removed from their context of a society caught between liberation, decay and looming dread. But their insistence on the body feels like a stark truth.
About Claire Thomson
Claire Thomson is a Glasgow based writer and communications professional. Follow her on Twitter @clairecthomson
This essay was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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Feature image: detail from Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes on the Street, 1925. Private collection (in the public domain);