How To Read Paintings: Portrait of Sylvia Von Harden by Otto Dix
A startling portrait that delves into the mindset of an entire epoch
For me, there are few works of art that so bravely depict life in all its gauche and unnerved contradictions as Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden.
When Dix painted this image in 1927, he depicted a side of German society that many preferred to overlook: a striking bohemian personality, a female intellectual, a Neue Frau (new woman) representing new discourses about sexuality, equality and urban mass society. Few paintings are so charged with anxiety and a sense of ambiguous turpitude.
The painting is a portrait of Sylvia von Harden, a German journalist and poet. In 1959, von Harden wrote an article about the making of the painting, describing how the artist had met her on the street and declared:
“I must paint you! I simply must! … You are representative of an entire epoch!”
“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?”
“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.”
Dix was a German painter associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group of artists, a movement that rejected romantic idealism in favour of a more vivid and candid mode of depiction. During the 1920s, Dix’s portraits of metropolitan life display an extraordinary perception for the anxieties and hypocrisies of German society after the First World War. Speaking in 1965, Otto Dix said:
“We want to see things completely naked, clear, almost without art. I invented the New Objectivity.”
Many of Dix’s artworks show the more threatening side of society, including war profiteers, crippled veterans, prostitutes and pregnant working-class women living in squalor. His experiences of war, where he saw action as an artillery gunner, seemed to have decisively affected his perspective on society, especially his sense of hypocrisy of the bourgeois classes.
“War is so bestial: hunger, lice, mud, those insane noises… I had the feeling, on looking at the pictures from my early years, that I had completely missed one side of reality so far, namely the ugly aspect.”
After the war, Dix settled in Dresden. He was a contributor to the Neue Sachlichkeit exhibition in Mannheim in 1925, which featured works by George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Karl Hubbuch, Rudolf Schlichter, Georg Scholz and many others.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Dix was dismissed from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy, where he had worked since 1927. In the years following, some 260 of his works were confiscated by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. Several of these works appeared in the Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) exhibition held in Munich in 1937. The exhibition was an attempt by the Nazi Party to ridicule modern artists and purge them from German culture. Slogans painted on the walls of the gallery — such as ‘Revelation of the Jewish racial soul’ and ‘Nature as seen by sick minds’ — were intended to stir up further revulsion among the visitors.
The first thing to notice about the Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden is of the shocking clash of colours: the strawberry-red of the sitter’s dress — with its modern chequered design — against the fuschia-pink of the background wall. This shrill combination of colours provides the primary discord of the whole painting.
Other details begin to draw the attention. The way her hand rests on her thigh with fingers splayed, the way her stockings are beginning to unroll down her legs, the audacious monocle fixed in her right eye, the rather bitter expression on her face, and most of all, the angular tumult of the whole composition, from her pointed chin to the odd, twisted position of her arms. Dix’s skill as a painter lay in his ability to depict sitters so as to allow their physical mannerisms to indicate psychological states.
Moreover, the portrayal has an exaggerated quality to it, so that the characteristics of her posture and fashion become somehow stereotypical. He makes her into a type, so that we view her as not only an individual but also a symbol of a wider reality. In its unsentimental and harshly naturalistic manner, Dix has managed to produce a gripping and hypnotic image of modern emancipation with all its contradictions.
If you would like to see this painting, it currently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
My book, How to Read Paintings, is available here.