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Judging Sylvia By Her Cover

It was a Wednesday afternoon. My eyes had grown tired of Matisse’s representations of fertility in ‘la blouse romaine.’ Nor was I particularly thrilled by Picasso depiction of his female models, dried out prunes dehumanized by primary school shapes. And thats when I saw her. Our paths had finally crossed, her story woven into mine. A portrait of Sylvia Von Harden hovered above me, entrapped in a chaos of pink and red compressed into a frame.

The walls of rotting meat took me back to the local butchers, horrified of a once living breathing being stuffed into bits of plastic and string. The plaid tartan seeming like a perverted joke of my childhood uniform, wooden memories of public humiliation to ‘pull my skirt down.’ A stream of flesh flowing from her hands down to her legs, so hard and firm that I was overcome with a cold chill making me pull my jacket closer to me. Her martini, a concoction of intoxicating bitterness. And yet, despite her glass half empty face, I felt completely and utterly recognized. Although her gaze refused to meet mine, we were both in agreement. I was uncomfortably reassured, feeling safe with this stranger that had no interest in me at all. Finally, a painting worth a second glance.

Otto Dix, A Portrait Of Sylvia Von Harden, 1926

I hurried onto the last metro that evening whilst my thoughts were heavy with the image of her. Nameless to me, I furiously googled away, hoping I would feel more intrinsically linked to this woman. Otto Dix’s portrait is of Sylvia Von Harden. This is what I discovered about mysterious Sylvie. She wrote for a column in the daily paper; ‘The Young German,’ for two years, then ‘the red earth,’ for four. Sylvia was married to a writer named Ferdinand Hardekopf, and together they created a son. She produced two volumes of poetry, self exiled herself to England in 1933, continued to write ‘unsuccessfully,’ and died in Croxley Green in 1963. Then the entirety of the brief biography is taken up by her feature in the famous painting. There was one quote, one sliver of her voice, in which she questions Dix’s interest in her as a subject;

'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?’

Despite attempting to picture it in a deeply ironic tone, both the quote and blip of a biography left me defeated. When I became frustrated with one website, I went to ten more, in desperate search of an article, poem, something. Nothing. Her name was suffocated under his. ‘Otto Dix’s portrait of Slyvia Von Harden’. ‘Otto dix’s muse; Von Harden’. ‘Analysis of Otto Dix’s painting of woman in cafe’. And that was it. An identity completely lost, poetry, articles, all gone to the google hemisphere. What surprised me the most was that gazing at the one photograph of her, all her features she harshly pointed out worked together harmoniously.

Otto Dix, Hugo Erfurth, 1933

Dix had turned a handsome woman into a shadow of a person, narrow chinned and squint eyed. He had attempted to hyperbolize her insecurities. But what for?

Despite the intriguing details, the garish composition of her face, the typically masculine monocle she possesses and the daring stocking casually unravelling, none of it told me who she really was. This is because Dix created Sylvia into ‘a type, so that we view her as not only an individual but also a symbol of a wider reality.’ Therefore, one will never be able to understand the complexities of the woman, only how her quirks have been harnessed into change.Dix was famously known for being part of the ‘New Objectivity,’ movement that began in Weimar Germany. It was a rebellious response to expressionism, artists striving to show their views in a completely unsentimental fashion. Caused by the political unrest of Germany in the 1920s and 30s, most work found from this period is unnerving and extremely critical. This therefore may explain Von Hardens in appearance. Based on a statement Dix shared shortly before his death, ‘Any exaggeration or caricature found in Dix’s works “turns out to be the most ruthlessly honest character assessment,” symbolic of the façade that hides the decay of society and Dix’s attitude toward it.’

When I looked at more of Dix’s work, this mentality became even more apparent. ‘prostitutes,’ made in 1923, shrouds two women in a stench of hyperbole. They are figures that naw and eat away at any sexual appetite one might have possesed before viewing the painting. Both characters would be more suitable underneath a child’s bed then upon a canvas. The women rot in ambiguity as something is unclear, to historians, critics and viewers in the same unrest that Slyvia lies in. Is Dix ridiculing the prostitutes, or prostitution itself? One piece of information I sourced was that Dix was completely and utterly opposed to prostitution, finding it abhorrent that war stricken Germany has forced many women to take up the profession. Contrastingly, another source informed me that Dix was a regular customer at the whorehouses. A writer once claimed that ‘it would be a mistake to label Dix a misogynist, since he lavished loathing on men, too, and especially on himself.’ This rang true when I looked at ‘sailor and girl.’

The man’s smile brings a familiarity that we can see in the portrait of the prostitute, Dix trying to evoke disgust and unease for the viewers. Dix has attempted to depict the sailor objectively more horrific than the woman. The blue scratching on his cheek, the length of his smile and his monobrow merge into a turmoil where we immediately distrust him. However, despite the dehumanising appearance of the sailor, power and domination over the ‘girl,’ is violently rife. The lion ornament coincides with the sailors paw like hands, the rip in the pillow. His body is thrusted upon hers, his presence stalking her movements. He is a predator, fully dressed looking at his stark naked pray. Summarised by Angela Carter, he was stripping her of the ‘ last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, pearlized satin, like a skinned rabbit.’ With this evidence, one might assume Dix was trying to evoke sympathy for her. Even the colours of the painting show the scale of the sailors influence, as the most prominent colours of the painting are the ones Dix used to paint him. However, the woman does not look scared or threatened. Inversely, she seems to be enjoying her lack of control, looking directly into the sailors eyes with a slight smile on her face. Either that, or so submersed in subservience that she is numb to her passivity. And yet again, I was still left with questions.

One thing we might take away from the sailor and the girl lwhen it comes to destigmatising repressed female desire is the erasure of shame so many woman suffer through. Whore shaming, especially in our current society has left many sex workers in the face of violence with no protection from the authorities, police or public. A new movement has begun to gain popularity, ‘sex work is work.’ In 2019 a sex worker called Jo wrote ‘I’m not ashamed of what I do for a living. We are workers just like any other demanding more money and less work so that we can reclaim for ourselves more of our life.’ Similarly, a sex worker named Tamika Spellman who has been in the industry for more than 30 years says that ‘everybody has sex. The only difference is we charge for it.’ By seeing these people not as stereotypically desperate degenerates who have turned to men in order to give stability in their lives, but as strong, independent women who technically get exploited less than some jobs in hospitality or physical labour jobs, we then can eradicate the stigma around sex workers. Therefore, when Dix paints the prostitutes and the girl smiling nonchalantly, I could see glimmers of this de-stigmatisation. Of not asking the viewer to react with sympathy, but a new way of seeing sex, or specifically sex work.

As we return to the question of why Sylvia Von Harden’s portrait was so severe, I found a quote from Dix himself; ‘I was not really seeking to depict ugliness. Everything I saw was beautiful.” This made me recall a theory of feminism I had studied before, the feminine grotesque. Claire Duffy writes ‘In an act of disobedience, feminist humour plunders the literary tradition that makes women disgusting and turns to the comic and regenerative power of the grotesque to claim and empower the female body.’ One woman in particular who utilises this very well is Angela Carter. Carter used the abject and grotesque to, in her words ‘answer back,’ to the patriarchy and its ideals. In novels such as The Bloody Chamber, Carter uses perverted sexual ideas to create female driven fairy tales. In short stories such as The Bloody Chamber, the male characters are often obsessed with bondage, killing, and taking away virginities. This would seem to align with the Women Against Pornography movement that began in 1979, being led by the greats such as Gloria Steinem. Still ongoing, the feminists of this movement strongly believe that objectifying women in magazines such as Playboy strongly encourage more sexual violence against women. However, both Dix’s work and Carters are deeply soaked in irony. Not only are the men grotesque in the novel (their vile desires inversely dehumanising them) but Carter gives slight hints that the women at times share this lust for strange ordeals. This gives us a more balanced view on the subject, but also again does not leave any room for sympathy towards these female protagonists. Instead, it shines a light on a topic that we as a society still struggle to be open with, female desire. As I began to see the connection, Von Harden’s previous quote had, to me, shown its true colours. In my mind, this woman did not care that she had ‘lacklustre eyes’ or ‘big hands.’ She found it entertaining that people did care. And perhaps Dix did too, perhaps he laughed at home whilst conservative critics wrote scathing reviews.

I realised that I was focusing on Dix’s perception of Von Harden rather than the woman herself, but I was determined to see what the general consensus was. I showed the painting to several men down in Cornwall. Despite a probable lack of interest in New Objectivity art, I thought their input might be useful. When asked whether they thought Dix

was ridiculing Sylvia or not their answer immediately disappointed me. ‘well he’s made her look well ugly hasn’t he,’ answered one. one s just said ‘The painters just taking the piss.’ They saw her over exaggerated features at face value. They saw her gender inversion as a joke. They saw her like another object merely to be passively consumed by their own sexual appettie. I then called up one of my good friends who has more knowledge on the art scene than myself. The men’s answer, although enlightening, had left me slightly hollow inside. I knew a woman’s perspective would clear this away. She said very simply that ‘Dix took his time to paint her. I wouldn’t take the time to paint someone if I didn’t respect them.’ To understand Sylvia, to understand Dix and to understand his work from not just a critic or art enthusiasts point of view, but from an artists. Dix was lucky enough to get to know Sylvia Von Harden, and specifically picked her. For what purpose, we will never know. But what we do know for now is he most likely spent weeks and weeks looking at her, studying her and understanding her character. He was a step ahead of others, for realising that Sylvia Von Harden would, and will, make an impact on the viewer.


Edited by Natalie Cheung, Essays Editor


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