strange flowers and greenhouse plants, painted people and listless sounding bells. so far. so. distant. merging. breathing.
– Anita Berber, “Morphium”
The most famous image of German dancer and actress Anita Berber goes on display in New York’s NeueGalerie next week as the centrepiece of an exhibition dedicated to painter Otto Dix.
If confronted with Dix’s 1925 canvas without knowing anything of the sitter, you might imagine her to be an aging, jaded fixture of Weimar Berlin’s demimonde, perhaps a prostitute, performer or drug addict washed up in the low tide of the night.
And apart from the age, you would be right; Berber was just 26 when Dix painted her portrait. She was then at the height of her infamy, her scandalous theatrical representations of sex, decadence and corruption, often performed naked, matched by a chaotic offstage existence marked by multiple addictions, prostitution and a string of male and female lovers. Dix pictures her posed lasciviously, old before her years with a grotesque, mask-like face; the backdrop, clinging dress and fashionably cropped hair are drenched in the shrill red of danger, passion, violence and vice.
Dix and his wife Martha were fascinated by Berber after seeing her dance on stage in Düsseldorf. In Lothar Fischer’s book Anita Berber: Göttin der Nacht, Martha Dix recalls watching Berber down a whole bottle of cognac while applying her makeup, a process which took an hour. Walking the streets with her later she observed how every man who approached her would be told “200 marks” (“well she had to make money somehow,” reasoned Dix).
Just as Berber’s performances tested the limits of the permissive Weimar Republic, so too did Otto Dix’s portrait, being rejected from a 1926 Berlin exhibition as “offensive” (more predictably, it was later denounced by the Nazis as “degenerate”). Two years later its subject was dead, worn out by excess.