Thursday, 12 March 2009

Otto Dix

The Dancer Anita Berber 1925
Tempera on Plywood, 120 x 65 cm

Galerie der Stadt, Stuttgart
Not Seen

The only painting by Otto Dix that I have seen is The Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, that is in the Pomidou Centre in Paris. Whilst this is painted in similar colours and materials to The Dancer Anita Berber, it lacks the latter’s air of melancholy. So I will work from a quality photographic reproduction and revise the review once I have had chance to see the painting first hand.

I find his model a fascinating subject, a tragic star whose flame burned brightly and was destined to die young. She was born in Dresden and moved to Berlin to be a cabaret dancer when she was just 16 years old. Three years later she was dancing in nude reviews and appearing in pornographic films. Dix met Berber in the 1925, by which time she was a cocaine addict and allegedly drank a bottle of cognac a night. He portrayed her as the notorious vamp, loved by her public for her gaudy costumes and ambiguous sexuality. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis three years later and died in 1929.

Dix worked by making a detailed drawing of the model from life and then applied the first coat of paint with the model present. After this he worked without her present, building up the image from layers of transparent paint, maintaining the physicality from the sharply observed and drawn contours of the sheath like dress. The use of egg tempera on panel comes from Dix’s interest in the paintings of Grunewald and Cranach and gives the material a glowing translucent quality.

The most striking aspect of the painting though is not the choice of materials, but the widespread use of red. The effect of clothing her in red, giving her red hair, red lipstick and then extending the colour out into the background means that the image radiates with an almost unbearable intensity. There is an under painting of yellow that gives warmth to some of the red tones, but elsewhere he has added blues to give colder shades that border on magenta. Her face looks emaciated, with sunken cheeks and eyes deep in their sockets, and this blue seems to have slipped into the complexion, giving an impression of illness and decay. The body on the other hand, with the folds of the dress gathered on the hip, looks supple and agile. Her snakelike pose flaunts sexuality but retains an air of aloofness. Look but do not touch.

The ethereal face, with Berber’s trademark heart shaped lipstick, hovering between ghost and caricature is at complete variance with the body. Marked by her addictions it conflicts with the postural message and conveys an expression of forlorn desperation rather than that of the flirtatious flamboyant vamp.

©blackdog 2009


  1. An excellent interpretation of the painting- and a very impressive one indeed!- a full dressed up lady might look quite more erotical than a nude one (although Anita Berber danced often as nude and presented herself as nude model to Otto Dix) - and the intense, crying red adds the certain something/sex appeal to that image, a red with different meanings: (night)life/ fun/ entertainment in special etablissements/roaring twenties- love/ sexual power/longing- sorror/ blood/ death/ decline- a lively burning fire soon burning out and leading to a burn-out! A dance on the volcano!
    Otto Dix is well know as painter of the WWI and its painful-deadly consequences- as modern/actual as at his own time!

  2. Decided not to review his WW1 paintings as I already had the Beckmann painting and just love the reds in this one. I have still to see it and need to schedule a visit. I hope it is on display!!!

    I find it really interesting that the technique has more in common with Cranach than expressionism. Fancy using egg tempera.

    I have found a book called The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber that I will try and buy - taking the research a bit far but she sounds fascinating ;o)

  3. In my (an apple-poem every day/ makes the doctor away?) literature calendar from 12th March 2009 I read the following poem written by -always being in a melancholic mood- Nicolaus Lenau, An die Melancholie/To the Melancholie (in the tradition of Lord Byron and others; the first sentence could be the motto of your both blogs I know, too):
    Surely you know the catalogue dealing with the great exhibition "Melancholie. Genie und Wahnsinn in der Kunst" (Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin 2006): - Böcklin's "Toteninsel" (Berlin) was one of the highlights then- a fasscinating painting indeed!