Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Lady with Mink and Veil
German artist Otto Dix was part of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, movement centered in Berlin during the years between the two World Wars.
Life was difficult in the country that had lost the First World War, and the Weimar Republic government was dysfunctional. Nonetheless, the period also ushered in a new artistic freedom. Artists like Dix, his colleague George Grosz, and others associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit confronted the decade’s social unrest, widespread unemployment, and poverty with aggressively political artwork. They gave expression to the terrible social suffering they saw around them by injecting the grotesque into their paintings. Dix, for instance, produced numerous images of wretched war amputees and disheveled, ghastly prostitutes—portraits of social types that focused not on creating actual likenesses, but on exploring deeper cultural “truths” about life in all its ugliness and squalor.
In Dix’s painting Lady with Mink and Veil, the viewer confronts a figure who has had a hard life. The woman in the painting is likely a war widow, fallen on hard times and forced to turn to prostitution. Her makeup is garish and her clothing is rather too revealing. Dix has given her sickly and pallid skin, sagging breasts, and a ratty fur stole. The chair she sits on is painted with a clarity and strength that she cannot match. In one respect, the veil is ironic, as it provides a kind of modest respectability at the same time that the strap of her dress has fallen off almost completely. Ultimately, though, the veil is an integral part of her costume, shielding her misshapen face from too much scrutiny as she, perhaps, advertises to clients. To create the veil, Dix dipped an actual veil in paint and pressed it to the canvas to transfer the pattern. The effect of this technique is that the paint, indeed, acts like a veil, obscuring the details of the brushed-in face beneath.
Susan Sidlauskas, Associate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University
“Otto Dix is conveying a lot of the psychological trauma of the years after World War I. So this is very much a social portrait of a particular moment in time, in addition to being a kind of conjuring of an individual. It’s not so much that we’re looking at her features; in fact, we can barely see her features through this veil—it’s called a widow’s veil that’s she’s wearing over her face. When we look at them though, the first thing that appears to us is a kind of clown-like, rose-pink rouge on either cheek and a distended, opened mouth, eyes spaced far apart, and then we look at her body and her body with the sunken breasts. It’s called Woman with Mink. We don’t know the name of the person—she may or may not have been a prostitute, she looks like one, but we’re not sure. It looks like the mink is not the dead animal that someone would wear around their shoulders, but almost something alive because it looks in places around her chest as if this animal with its claws has made marks on her chest. And he actually deliberately cracked the texture of the paint to make her skin look crackled, look wrinkled.
When you first look at her you can imagine her as the victim of ridicule, she looks ridiculous, but yet in many ways as you look at it more closely, she becomes a very sad figure—someone who’s trying, she’s trying to look attractive. The face and body themselves look physically distorted to achieve the psychological anguish, at least economic anguish this woman must be suffering. I mean, one can imagine that a prostitute living in Dresden in the years after World War I is not going to have an easy life. And he conjures all that, I think, by the way he positions her, by the way he seats her, by her frailty, by the exposure of her body, the scratching. And I find the animal particularly disturbing, because it’s almost as if that animal is a way to condense the kind of suffering that she must endure.”
Ackermann, Marion, and Daniel Spanke. Match: Otto Dix and the Art of Portraiture. Köln: DuMont, 2009.
Apel, Dora. “‘Heroes’ and ‘Whores’: The Politics of Gender in Weimar Antiwar Imagery.” Art Bulletin 79.3 (September 1997): 366–384.
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McGreevy, Linda F. Bitter Witness: Otto Dix and the Great War. Bern and New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.
Rewald, Sabine, Ian Buruma, and Matthias Eberle, eds. Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.
Rowe, Dorothy. Representing Berlin: Sexuality and the City in Imperial and Wiemar Germany. Aldershot, Hants, UK: Ashgate, 2003.
Wood, Paul. “Realisms and Realities.” In Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art between the Wars, edited by Briony Fer et al., 292–297. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993.