Otto Dix, The Dancer Anita Berber (1925). Oil and tempera on plywood, 120 x 65 cm. Currently in New York city at the Neue Galerie, on loan from the Landesbank Baden-Würtemberg in the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart.
Otto Dix (1891 – 1969), as mentioned earlier this week, is currently having his first major exhibition in the United States at the Neue Galerie in New York. An artist that before I was not unaware of but rather did not hold great appeal for me is now ranking among one of my current favorites. His show brings together works from his most important periods and allows one to fully understand his development. From his early dreams of being an artist through his military career in WWI and its large effect on his artistic output to his resistance to the Nazis and his subsequent conscription into the Nazi army, the exhibition does a wonderful job of chronologically situating some of his more well-known works among those that speak more clearly about his biggest influences.
Though his most famous works are portraits of some of Wiemar society's more eccentric members, his work spans numerous mediums from painting to prints and collage while also spanning themes of the effects and aftermath of war, political critique, the German underworld and sexual murders. A key member of the New Objectivity movement, he was also part of the Dresden Secession and later the Berlin Secession. One of the many artists declared degenerate by the Nazis, Dix continued to paint critical works though legally obliged to only paint landscape works.
The work above, The Dancer Anita Berber (1925) is one of Dix most well-known paintings. The subject, Anita Berber (1899-1928), was an infamous figure in Berlin Wiemar society. A burlesque dancer with a scandalous sex life (she swung both ways and often appeared in pornographic reels), a nasty drug habit (lots of cocaine), and her constant state of dishabille (she liked to go around dressed only in a mink coat) made her a unique and polarizing figure. She is shown above in the red costume of her "Morphine" dance, one of a few performances named after various substances. A known addict of both cocaine and opiates, and having married three times, Berber was also closely associated with another dancer, Sebastian Droste, and they often performed together.
Berber is shown here near the end of her tragically short life. Dying before she reached the age of 30, the dancer was known for a destructive lifestyle. The violent red of her costume and hair, the color it was often dyed, frame her stark features and rebellious expression. The violence of the color and the contrast between the overwhelming tone and her pale skin allows the viewer to understand some of the key aspects of the subject without even knowing her background. This is not a light-minded woman with few cares. Though her heavy makeup and costume were part of a persona of the stage, the careful application of makeup can not hide the fact that the young woman looks much, much older than her years. The fast living and dangerous edge on which she lived shows in her face and the explicitly sensual pose. Another aspect that particularly intrigues me is that the background is the same tone as her dress. This is very rare in art and especially portraiture and it seems very ill-fitting here.
This subject, a woman known to have stood out like a sore thumb because of her clothing and behaviors, is shown as part of a backdrop. Where she would never conform in real life she is immortalized as part of a larger whole. The unease one feels at the overwhelming red and the drastic contrasts elicits the type of reaction and response that one must believe the woman herself produced. Like people in Berlin during the period, the viewer is drawn in and repulsed at the same time. Who is this prostitute? The woman in the red dress? Is she an actress in character or was this the true girl behind the makeup? My favorite aspect of this painting is that what you take away from it depends wholly on the preconceptions you have before you view it. The red could mean a prostitute, an actress, a woman out on the town, a costume party. That the truth is a scandalous courtesan of the Wiemar Republic is not obvious. Her portrait remains one of the things she is most famous for, and I have to wonder how she felt about it and how she would want to be viewed by history.
Posted by Lydia at 8:57 PM