Charles Saatchi's Great Masterpieces: Berlin's bohemians and degenerative art

Sylvia von Harden
Sylvia von Harden Credit: Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix / Alamy Stock Photo

Our columnist Charles Saatchi takes a peek behind some of the world’s most significant paintings. This week, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix

B erlin in the roaring Twenties, and painter Otto Dix chases writer Sylvia von Harden down the street, proclaiming: “I must paint you! I simply must! You are representative of an entire epoch!”

Von Harden, surprised, coolly responds: “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?”

Sylvia von Harden was, other than caustic in her self-evaluation, a journalist, short-story writer and poet who particularly represented the avant-garde Neue Frau – a new woman in Weimar Germany. She was 32 years old at the time. 

Dix pictured her in the Romanisches Café in Berlin. This daringly bohemian hangout for writers, artists, models and intellectuals was considered by more respectable citizens to be the “headquarters of the world revolution”. Dix happily spent much of his time there.

Von Harden is, clearly, a woman of striking tastes; with a pink cocktail matching pink-tipped cigarettes and large ring with a pink stone, she seems to be gesturing as if bored by the dull conversation. The neue frau is not typically feminine, and von Harden rebels by wearing her hair in a daringly close-cropped Bubikopf, or bob.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Electing to wear a figure-disguising dress with a strong geometric pattern, her monocle and her large hands add to her androgynous statement. Dix presents a woman who is overturning cultural and gender stereotypes, her sagging stockings suggesting that she has other things on her mind than appearing pristine at all times.

Dix said of his choice to paint von Harden: “You have brilliantly characterised yourself, and all that will lead to a portrait representative of an era concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition.” 

While she was clearly considered to be among the intellectual glitterati, all documentation of her life and work suggests that she spent more time chatting in cafés, sipping on cocktails and dragging on cigarettes than doing any actual writing. She wrote a literary column for the monthly Young Germany, and published two volumes of poetry in 1920 and 1927 but she generally managed to make ends meet by writing leaflets and reviews. Most of her output was judged harshly by the bourgeoisie who found them to reveal a “whore’s sentimentality” that they found deeply unappealing.

Dix generally only made studies and cartoons of his sitters, and would then work in his studio on the final painting. Von Harden later revealed that her portrait began with a much more detailed preparation process: “For three weeks, I sat for a few hours every day. This might be easy for a professional model, but for me it was rather strenuous. 

“When I saw the finished portrait on his easel and had to look at my long face, the somewhat affectedly spread out fingers, and red and black checkered shift, and the short legs, I realised Dix had created a very strange painting, one that gained him much recognition, but also much criticism.” By the time Dix painted von Harden in 1926, he had become somewhat notorious as the angry, handsome young man that everybody loved to hate. He was receiving commissions from people who found it a privilege to be painted in his flaw-celebrating manner. His own taste in sitters was for people like Sylvia, and others living on the borders of social acceptability – prostitutes, show girls and drug addicts were among his favourite subjects.

He often declared: ‘Either I’ll become famous or notorious.’ And he managed to achieve both.

In 1925, Dix moved to Berlin, which was in the grip of astonishing inflation: one US dollar equalled 14 million Deutsche marks. The city, and the painter, became heavily influenced by American culture when the US swooped in to bail out Germany, which had been crippled by the Treaty of Versailles. Dix revelled in the American spirit, finding it an appropriate outlet for his rebellious nature. He adored visiting cinemas showing American movies, and dance halls playing American music – he was a great dancer and gained the nickname “Jimmy the Shimmy”.

Ilse Fischer wrote in her profile of Dix that his appearance was striking, with “the smoothly combed blonde hair of an American, dressed in the American style, the cut of his suits with exaggeratedly wide padded shoulders, short trousers, and an unnaturally high waistline”.

He was, undoubtedly, a somewhat vain man who produced many self-portraits, kinder to himself than to most of his hapless subjects. He often declared: “Either I’ll become famous or notorious.” And he managed to achieve both.

Berlin in the Twenties was a vibrant metropolis, cited as providing “the highest level of intellectual production in human history”. Certainly, Germany at the time was considered by many as the country with the most advanced science, technology, literature, philosophy and art.

A man looks at pieces from Nazi-curated travelling exhibition 'Degenerate Art'

Dix’s ideas and style gained him both many admirers and detractors. Fischer said: “He falls between the classes, outspoken critic of the bourgeoisie, but he also can’t stand the working class – unrefined, herd mentality, narrow minds. He’s an outsider. He attacks his subject, whatever it might be, violently and impulsively. He dismembers and dissects the naked object with the lustfulness of a sex murderer. But, like the psychopath... he leaves the scene of the crime feeling sobered and empty.”

The Nazis were not enamoured of Dix and included him in their 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, banned him from exhibiting elsewhere, and even burned some of his paintings. In 1933, he had also been dismissed from his teaching position at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. The letter sacking him read: “Your paintings are a gross offence to moral feelings. You’ve painted pictures liable to undermine the German will to defend itself.” When he applied for professorship at Stuttgart Academy, they wrote back, insultingly asking for examples of his work, as if they had never heard of him, and denied him the position. 

Dix retreated to Lake Constance and spent the rest of his life there, feeling exiled. He had lost his subject matter of stimulating portraiture and started painting landscapes instead, never fulfilling again his artistic needs, which were so focused on society and unorthodox people.

© Charles Saatchi 2018