We are looking at Otto Dix's painting. It's Portrait of Sylvia von Harden and it's from 1926.
Who was Sylvia von Harden?
Sylvia von Harden was a fantastic, fabulous figure, who was not actually a journalist, even though the title says that she's a journalist. She was less of a journalist but actually a poet and a short story writer who worked in Germany.
And this shows her in the Romanisches Cafe in Berlin, which was a huge hangout for all of the cool avant-garde artists and writers and poets of the 1920s. So Sylvia von Harden is pictured here in this little corner where she would have hung out at a little cafe table.
She was an avant-garde of neue frau. And she was friendly with various artists and poets and writers of the era.
So neue frau is the new woman in Germany in the early 20th century. And we're in between the Great War and World War II here. And the new woman is that the woman in the public sphere who goes out and works.
She has close-cropped hair, I see, which makes her rather androgynous. Her hands are very large. Do these things have to do with representing the new woman in a work of art, perhaps?
It does. It has to do with the new woman in general, but it also has to do with Otto Dix's style of portraiture. One thing that Otto Dix was famed for was making his sitters quite ugly and quite unattractive.
Sylvia von Harden does look like this in real life but not to quite the extent that Dix shows her. So that, things like her hair—she did have a close-cropped haircut. In Germany this cut had a very funny specific name, called the Bubikopf, which was in style all throughout the 20s. She did have a sort of androgynous appearance.
And this dress is actually based on a dress that she actually wore. And so it does have a lot of basis in reality. But things like her hands, he elongates and sort of creates these immense hands.
And I think that has a lot to do with sort of deflection and kind of placement as it draws your attention to things like the area where her breasts should be, which because she's such an androgynous figure, she doesn't really have any.
She's wearing this very kind of geometric-patterned dress that hides any kind of feminine figure that she might have. She's covered up. I mean, it even has a turtleneck so we don't even get to see her neck. And then you see the other hand kind of draped across her lap, covering it up. But there are other elements that you might be able to see that signal different things.
In the body?
If you look actually at this great detail—the sagging stocking—you can kind of see, and that's a really great moment of realism that Dix captures. You don't want to have your stockings be shown as sagging. It sort of implies a kind of messiness. She doesn't seem to have a very polished kind of air about her. But on the other hand, it kind of gives her this sort of subversive quality.
She's sitting there and she's looking out. She has a monocle even. I mean, she has these particular features, all these little accessories that pinpoint her as a particular kind of woman—the sagging stocking, the large hands, the monocle which highlights the kind of sight and gaze that a new woman might have.
And then she has cigarettes. She's smoking in a public place. That's all kind of building a particular sort of identity for this character, and Dix was really talented at doing that in his painting.
The patterned dress seems to really emphasize a sense of surface and flatness instead of her body. Her neck seems very cylindrical and almost mechanical rather than a human organic form as well.
I think one of the things that I like about this painting, too, is the way that Dix uses this kind of geometric sort of areas and shapes and throws it into contrast with, if you see behind her, she's sitting on this really ornately patterned chair. So those kind of curves are more feminine than her body is, which I think is a great kind of a comment to make.
Then there's the circle of her monocle; there's the circle of the marble table; the circle of the glass, which has a very particular kind of cocktail in it that was popular at the time. So those things, and then things that are longer and flatter, like her body, which really should be the least flat, you know, if you're thinking about what bodies look like.
Are bodies in round and sort of curvaceous and sensual things or are they in kind of desexualized, androgenized forms which Dix does here?
And we should probably contextualize this in terms of the new objectivity, or neue Sachlichkeit.
Yes, Sachlichkeit. Yes!
Which was occurring at this time, a movement in between the wars, which went back to a bit more of a figural style, a bit more naturalism—relatively more naturalistic than what one might be familiar with in terms of Kirchner or German expressionism or Kandinsky, of course, other artists who were working in Germany at the time. Why going back to this style, which is a bit more naturalistic?
Well, I think that the realism is, there are many things that are important about it at this time, but this is 1926. There's this sort of general sense in Germany. This is going on in other countries in Europe as well, kind of a return to order, kind of looking back at tradition, a kind of sense that they wanted to create something new, but they wanted it to have a particular kind of meaning and a rootedness in something that was very German.
So Otto Dix is really looking back to traditions of portraiture in Germany. He looks back to Holbein who creates, you know, incredibly important portraits and sort of, you know, bringing out that kind of German quality.
Holbein's hyper-naturalistic, isn't he?
Yes, he is hyper-naturalistic. What he does is he takes naturalism and realism and he sort of lifts it to another level, where it almost is caricature. So it kind of falls between that. And a lot of neue Sachlichkeit painters did that—a kind of photographic realism, almost, but also taken to an extreme.
That's interesting that it's characterized as a kind of call to order or a return to order, while we're representing someone who is apparently overturning some very longstanding gender hierarchies and ordered ways of thinking about men and women as very separate. The new woman, particularly as it's embodied here by Sylvia, seems to be confounding those categories rather than reveling in how neat and ordered they are.
The new woman, particularly as it's embodied here by Sylvia, seems to be confounding those categories rather than reveling in how neat and ordered they are.
Well, she's definitely about sort of overturning things. And you know, even her name is actually made up. It's a pseudonym. She changed her name when she started her writing career. She's not a huge, very popular writer, but she's one of many poets and writers who are working on different pieces that are published in small journals that, you know, very small kind of audiences have read.
But she's definitely overturning different kinds of cultural stereotypes and gender stereotypes, and kind of in that space of subversion in the cafe culture of Germany at the time.
What did Dix's sitters think about the fact that he liked to make people ugly? Did that bother them?
You know, sometimes it did. A lot of times it was almost like a privilege to be painted by Dix and portrayed in this particularly ugly kind of way. But one or two sitters did have a problem with it, depending on if he was commissioned by sitters because he was so well-known, and at this point, in '26, he's very well-known for his painting style. But earlier than that, some of his more wealthy business clients did not particularly like the way that they were painted.
Sylvia von Harden, as far as I know, loved the way that this painting worked. She even sat with it. It's at the Pompidou Center now. In the '60s she even sat and had a photograph taken of herself in front of the portrait. And you can see even, at that point, that she still sort of looks a little bit like the figure in it.
I just think it's a great portrait.
- 「雖然、即使」- Even Though
Sylvia von Harden was a fantastic, fabulous figure, who was not actually a journalist, even though the title says that she's a journalist.
- 「和...有關」- Have To Do With
Do these things have to do with representing the new woman in a work of art, perhaps?
- 「通常、一般」- In General
It does. It has to do with the new woman in general, but it also has to do with Otto Dix's style of portraiture.
- 「掩蓋、遮住」- Cover Up
She's covered up. I mean, it even has a turtleneck so we don't even get to see her neck.
- 「就...而言」- As Far As
Sylvia von Harden, as far as I know, loved the way that this painting worked.