Friday, April 18, 2008

Life Is A Cabaret, Old Chum


On the last day of our trip to Paris - a city where the deceptive distances we walk always make our ankles feel like bloody stumps - we visited the Pompidou Centre. This fine gallery is home to one of my favourite paintings by my favourite artist, Otto Dix. Portrait Of The Journalist Sylvia Von Harden was painted in Berlin in 1926, and shows the racily-monocled Harden sat in a cafe, fag in hand. It's a grotesque caricature, her fingers are like a squid's tentacles and her face is the colour of a vest that's been boil-washed a hundred times. Look closely, and one of stockings is rolled down below the hem of her dress. You sort of get the impression that writing didn't pay well. The first time I saw this was at a retrospective of Dix's work at the Tate in 1992 - it's an image that stays with you, and even makes a vignette appearance in the film Cabaret. Dix himself had a tough life - wounded umpteen times in WW1, he suffered recurring nightmares for the rest of his life. He was considered a degenerate artist by the Nazis and had several of his paintings burnt, was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler and drafted into the volkssturm. Some of his works have the same capacity to shock as the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan - Take a look at Mealtime in the Trenches and Flanders - the latter a landscape that looks like clothing on a rotting corpse. Some of his stuff is lighter, however - The Dancer Anita Berber is another unflattering portrait, but there's more than a whiff of a shared joke between sitter and painter. Nice to know even Otto Dix could find something to laugh about.

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