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.
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.