Monday, April 2, 2012

Otto Dix And The Portrait of Anita Berber

Photo by Bob Ramsak / piran cafe
By Heidi Noroozy

I am not an art critic or scholar, so I can freely admit to certain attitudes about art without blushing. Art works are supposed to be things of beauty, like a Persian carpet or a miniature painting. Who wants an ugly old thing hanging on the wall? Art should bring pleasure to the eye and joy to the heart.

Or so I once thought. But that was before I discovered the German painter, Otto Dix.

Known primarily for his anti-war themes and femme fatales, Otto Dix’s work can be best described as grotesque, filled with distorted human figures, bold colors, and dark images. Pretty it is not. Fascinating? Absolutely. His best known paintings from the 20s and 30s depict the instability, corruption, and decadence of the Weimar Republic, the terrible aftermath of World War I.

The first time I saw an Otto Dix painting was at the Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart, Germany, where I lived in the late 1980s. The museum held a special exhibition of this Expressionist painter’s work, combining pieces from its permanent collection with paintings on loan from other institutions. I wandered from room to room, at first completely disturbed by the ugliness, violence, and dark emotions sparking off the gallery walls.

I was thoroughly hooked once I reached the painting I still think of as “The Lady in Red,” a larger-than-life depiction of a woman in a violently red dress with matching lips and hair. She’s looking disdainfully over her thin shoulder, her body twisted slightly, hand on hip in a stance that, combined with the distaste on her face, comes across as a mockery of a model’s pose.

The work’s real title is Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber, and, like many of Dix’s paintings, it depicts a real person. Born in 1899 in Leipzig, Anita Berber moved to Berlin at the age of sixteen and soon found work as a cabaret dancer. She earned notoriety for her nude performances on the stage as well as her penchant for hanging about hotel lobbies dressed only in a mink coat, a silver brooch filled with cocaine, and carrying a monkey.

Anita Berber in 1918
Berber was married three times, which didn’t stop her from entertaining a string of lovers of both sexes ( allegedly including Marlene Dietrich). She was addicted to cocaine, opium, and morphine as well as a homemade concoction of chloroform and ether, which she’d stir in a bowl with a white rose then eat the petals. But it was tuberculosis, not drugs, that caught up with her in the end, killing her at the age of 29.

Otto Dix painted his portrait of Anita Berber in 1925, three years before her death. In the painting, she looks far older than 26 – the result of hard living, or just the way Dix saw her? Whatever the reason, Berber was a logical subject for Dix, since she represented everything he criticized about the Weimar years and a generation so wounded by war that they buried themselves in excess and meaningless pleasures.

When the Nazis came to power, they viewed Dix as a decadent artist, dismissed him from his post as professor at the Kunstakademie in Dresden, and destroyed many of his paintings. The Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber was among the works confiscated, but fortunately it survived, and the artist was able to buy it back from a Munich dealer after the war.

When I first saw Dix’s painting of Anita Berber, I didn’t yet know her story. In a room of images filled with the broken bodies of war’s casualties, the redness of her dress, lips, and hair seared its way into my brain. Perhaps it gave me an electric jolt that helped me appreciate the honesty in the disturbing images all around me.

That afternoon I spent with Otto Dix taught me more about war than any history class. I learned not just the horror of it (which goes without saying) but how it extends its terrible fingers past the battlefields and corrupts entire societies. It was a lesson well learned.


  1. Great to learn something new, I only wish more of our leaders would look at that exhibit and think a little more about those consequences before leading us into war

  2. I agree! And war has only gotten more terrible since Dix's time.

  3. Great post, Heidi. I felt as if I were inside your skin as you viewed the painting. What a dramatic, though sad, figure Anita was.