Otto Dix – Portrait of Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926)

If you were to travel back in time to 1920s Berlin and head into the Romanisches Café, located on the end of the fashionable Kurfürstendamm, you’d suddenly find yourself surrounded by all the great minds of that bustling period. You would meet writers like Bertolt Brecht and Erich Maria Remarque, New Objectivity artists who want to shock you with their gruesome art like George Grosz and Otto Dix, and you’d even see Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born American filmmaker who later went on to revolutionize Hollywood.

And as you made your way into the teeming, smoke-filled café, searching for a secluded place from which to observe all these great personalities without being a hindrance, you would suddenly see her. The most memorable face you’ve ever laid your eyes upon. No, she’s not technically the woman of your dreams, nor is she your next best friend, but she stops you right in your tracks.  There’s something absolutely compelling and forceful about her. You’re dumbstruck.

Otto Dix - Portrait of Journalist Sylvia von Harden
Otto Dix – Portrait of Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926), oil and tempera on wood

Her name is Sylvia von Harden. If she were to notice you at all, she’d probably introduce herself as a journalist and poet, writing articles for the daily Berlin papers, despite idling most of her hours in this café. She doesn’t have a notebook or a pen on her, but it doesn’t matter, does it? Her whole appearance screams intellectualism. It’s as if to be a writer consists, first and foremost, in inhabiting a particular state of mind. It’s no wonder Otto Dix chose to depict this 32-year old in Portrait of Journalist Sylvia von Harden.

According to Sylvia von Harden’s account, when Dix first saw her at the Romanisches Café, he enthusiastically asked her to pose for a portrait, claiming she represented a whole epoch, an era “concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman, but rather with her psychological condition”. In other words, she was the neue Frau, the emancipated, 1920s highly sexual, working New Woman. Her androgynous appearance attested to those changing times.

Despite wearing a short, red-and-black checkered dress and having her stocking rolled down, there is nothing sexual or feminine about her look. Her hair is cut short, in a mannish, fashionable bob and she’s even wearing a monocle, highly unusual for a woman. The monocle reinforces her role as an observant, as she sits by herself in that café corner, drinking a cocktail and smoking a red-tipped cigarette. But it also underlies her pretense at aristocracy, like the highly ornate chair on which she sits. Her dark lipstick and the ring on her finger are among the few clues we get that she is a woman. Dix made sure to exaggerate and enlarge von Harden’s manly features, including her hands, ears and nose. The hands, in particular, are extremely expressive, concealing her breasts and thigh and making her silhouette look even more shapeless.

In addition to her grotesque form, color plays just as important a role in destabilizing the viewer. Look how sickly the red hues of the walls are, like rotting meat, perhaps signaling a society in decay. Not to mention the ill and morbid green and yellow translucence of von Harden’s pale skin. Dix believed that each and every person had a certain color that defined their personality, something that photography could never capture: “…not only the form, but color as well is of the greatest importance and serves as a means of expressing the individual. Each person has his own special color that affects the entire picture. Color photography has no emotional expression, but is only a physical record, and a poor one at that.”

The German artist also used a double perspective here. We’re looking at Sylvia von Harden from eye-level, yet we see the table from above. This visual trick further destabilizes us. It’s a portrait of contradictions and paradoxes, revealing the gap between reality and pretension, and it’s understandable as to why art critics’ opinions differ when they try to explain the message that Dix wanted to convey. Is he criticizing women’s emancipation? Or is he fascinated by it? Is he reflecting the contradictory way in which society viewed these New Women or is he bringing forth his own opinions?

Many have concluded that Dix was a misogynist, though there isn’t much proof of that. Among the arguments they raise is that the artist refused to emigrate to the US, wary of the suffragist movement taking place there. He was a strong admirer of Nietzsche too, and by association, some assume that he adopted the German philosopher’s views on women. And perhaps the most used argument of all, is that portraying women in such a grotesque fashion clearly proves that Dix dismissed them. This point doesn’t hold much water, since the artist’s aesthetic was indiscriminate in its gruesomeness. Whether they were wounded veterans, prostitutes, businessmen or murderers, all his subjects (except himself) are treated with impartiality. They’re all equally repulsive, depicted as both the causes and the symptoms of a society in free fall. There is no blame being cast on the perpetrators, nor sympathy offered to the victims.

If you are even in the least fascinated by Sylvia von Harden’s portrait, then the artist achieved his goal. I think Dix’s approach to painting was no different than how he viewed war and violence. Afraid that he’d miss out on a very powerful experience, the German artist found himself magnetically drawn to the front line when he volunteered for service during World War I. He never regretted that decision. The same can be said about his art. In choosing to portray the ugliness of post-war Germany, Dix wasn’t criticizing it – he was utterly fascinated by it. “I was not really seeking to depict ugliness. Everything I saw was beautiful”, he declared shortly before his death.


Related: Christian Schad – Portrait of Dr. Haustein (1928)

22 thoughts on “Otto Dix – Portrait of Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926)

  1. What a strange picture. Everything seems slightly disproportionate. Nothing matches. You’re right, it makes me feel off balance, and yet I can’t look away.
    I also appreciate that introduction, walking the reader through 1920’s Berlin. What a great setup.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I liked this and checked out his other works. Obviously I didn’t see everything he had done and what I saw was not in chronological order but I find his statement about not seeking to depict ugliness and seeing everything as beautiful pretty hard to believe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dix was a strange cookie. From a New Yorker article: “He appalled a friend, Peters writes, with a ‘detailed description of the pleasurable sensation to be had when bayoneting an enemy to death.'” Maybe that was beauty to him.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think Dix was quite concerned with the extremes of human experience and considered himself an intense realist. A mangled, decaying corpse in a trench is grotesque and horrific to human sensibilities, but it is what it is, it’s never going to be anything other than that. The same way a flower in bloom is just that, a flower in bloom, no more no less. In that regard they hold an equally valid claim to beauty and both are potentially life-affirming, just in different ways.
      Think of beauty and ugliness as two sides of the same coin.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s a great way of looking at it. I especially like your last sentence, with beauty and ugliness being two sides of the same coin. I feel very tempted to extrapolate that and say “life and death are two sides of the same coin”. There is a vibrant complexity in Dix’s art that cannot be reduced to either beauty or gruesomeness. When I look at his works I see that he was fascinated with the depths of humanity, especially the traits we try to control and/or sweep under the rug. It’s as if by confronting death and violence we can appreciate how fragile and, yes, beautiful life is.


  3. I don’t know that much about Otto Dix but I always stop and look at his paintings. The people are very real. The men are just as ugly as the women. I liked your way of putting it his “aesthetic was indiscriminate in its gruesomeness”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you think the same way, that the women and men in Dix’s works are equally ugly. I was disheartened when I read that many art critics think that he was ridiculing Sylvia von Harden by portraying her like this. To me she looks utterly fascinating.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What a fascinating portrait made all the more riveting by your powerful writing and analysis. Thank you as ever, Gabriela! Part of me would actually want to be depicted in such a strong and impartial way as Otto Dix did here. I think this portrait is rather a compliment for the “intellectualism” it exudes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your warm words, Ingrid! I’m glad we’re on the same page. I initially thought that this portrait was flattering too. Sylvia von Harden herself took it as a compliment. But that is art – everyone sees something different in it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi,
    I’m taking a chance since this article was published already a few years ago, but would you mind giving me your full name?I looked for it and couldn’t find it… I’m currently doing research on this painting and I thought your comments were relevant and I would like to cite you correctly! 🙂


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