August Sander, “Turkish Mousetrap Salesman” (1924-30, printed 1990), photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 260 x 191 mm, ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010 (© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017)

LIVERPOOL — A stout, late middle-aged man turns to face the camera. His warm, dark eyes suggest his initial suspicion of the photographer’s intentions has diminished. His woolen suit jacket and neatly wound scarf conceal round shoulders and a thick neck. The man’s tired and scarred face reveals someone adept at surviving adverse seasons. The fact that the photographer, August Sander, identifies him as “Turkish Mousetrap Salesman” (c. 1924-30) is mostly extraneous.

In fact, there is a discrepancy between the boundless singularity of each Sander portrait and the narrow sociological label attached to it. His photo portraits are an extensive first act in Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 at the Tate Liverpool, which couples two of Germany’s most prolific 20th-century portraitists, Sander and Otto Dix.

Sander developed his aesthetic in the wake of the 19th-century pseudoscience of human physiognomy. He reached his peak in the 1920s, amid the rise of the Nazi party and cataclysmic racialism of The Third Reich, which was predicated on eugenics. Somehow, though, the artist’s preoccupation with faces, bodies, and social types does not come across as exploitive or repressive to his subjects. It is hard to disagree with German intellectual (and Sander’s contemporary) Walter Benjamin, who lauded Sander’s photography for its “tender empiricism.”

August Sander, “Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne” (1931, printed 1992), photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 260 x 149 mm, ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010 (© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017)

The nearly 150 photographs featured in the Tate exhibition represent only a small portion of Sander’s open-ended and incomplete project, titled People of the Twentieth Century. Sander thought of portrait photography as “a mosaic that becomes synthesis only when it is presented en masse” and he believed that by taking unsentimental pictures across demographics, the camera can “fix the history of the world.” That lifelong undertaking was first conceived in 1910 and its early results were published in his book Faces of Our Time (1929).

Detached almost to the point of appearing clinical, Sander’s photography offers no explicit critique of Weimar Germany’s economic and sociopolitical climate or considerable class divides. Yet, because he shed so much light on the physical toll paid by the working class, farmers, minorities and displaced members of the upper class, he is hardly a propagandist for capitalism’s status quo.

Born in 1876 into a working-class Cologne family, Sander worked for a time as a miner. Following his military service, he apprenticed as a photographer throughout Germany before coming into his own with photography assignments in Linz, Austria, and eventually opening a studio in Cologne. After serving in the medical corps during the First World War, he departed from his Cologne studio and hit the road on a bicycle to take local portraits in the rural regions outside his native city and, later, in the nooks and crannies of urban spaces.

Sander favored large format cameras that could replicate what he termed the “delicacy of the delineation” in early daguerreotypes, over newer, compact technologies. Using mostly natural lighting, his minimally staged shooting and documentarian ethos — epitomized by a fully frontal approach with limited depth of field — reproduce their human subjects squarely within their milieu.

August Sander, “August Sander” (1925, printed 1990), photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 258 x 195 mm, ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland. Presented by Gerd Sander 2009 (© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017)

Sander’s photographs are organized chronologically and surrounded with detailed timelines explaining the political and economic fluctuations destabilizing a culturally vibrant and diverse Germany. Details of Weimar Germany’s war debt, hyperinflation, mass unemployment and ineffective domestic policies enrich the emotional impact of Sander’s portraits of ordinary people. How many of Sander’s subjects intuited the slow-burning political catastrophe? And who among these individuals was complicit in that reactionary sway? Who survived it and who did not? These questions reflect back on our own politically desperate era, often with eerie resonance.

And, as in our uneasy times, the material trappings of Sander’s world attest to the precariousness of daily life. The haves and the have-nots seem equally vulnerable. “Beggar” (1926) focuses on an elderly man’s quizzical gaze and serene dignity while foregrounding the dispossessed man’s contiguous space: the sooty pavement on which he sits; the iron gate looming behind him; and the brickwork pillars boxing him in. The up-close, softly lit compositions produce an aura of tranquility even in the midst of disconcerting situations, as with the burly and legless “Disabled Ex-servicemen” (1928) in his wooden wheelchair, alone at the foot of sidewalk steps, or in images of anodyne aristocrats or bureaucrats, like the lanky, nattily-dressed “Public Prosecutor” (1931), with his beady-eyed attentiveness.

Frequently, Sander’s framing of his subjects yields refined abstract effects. “Nun” (1921) shows a ruddy face, barely visible through an ovoid gap formed from the woman’s tight fitting wimple. A religious pendant dangles into the midpoint of her white scapular, which, in its granularity, resembles a painter’s blank canvas. Like many such portraits, these cold symmetries — visible in work implements, interior furnishings, and sartorial particulars — call the viewer’s attention to the far less assured facets of an individual face and body.

Sander knew when to pick his moments. The candor of his subjects challenges the stereotypes enforced in the photographs’ titles. The derisively titled “Cretin” (1924) depicts a dwarf standing between handles of a pushcart. Dressed in a dark three-piece suit and holding a lit cigarette in his left hand, the young man’s mien projects self-assuredness, streetwise skepticism and aggressive irony.

If Sander’s work makes visible the workaday vivacities of academics, bohemians, housewives and children, Otto Dix’s art tears away those surfaces to portray an unruly domain of endless combat and vain materialism, sadistic violence and drunken debauchery.

August Sander, “The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha” (1925-6, printed 1991), photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 205 x 241 mm, ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010 (© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017)

Like Sander, Dix, born in 1891, came from a working-class family. He volunteered for World War I, serving as a machine-gunner on the Eastern and Western Front, where he sustained serious wounds. By the early 1920s, Dix’s painting began to gain wider notice; the mid-1920s marked his most productive period. The polychromatic dynamism of Weimar Germany runs rampant in his drawings, etchings and paintings, including rarely seen watercolors featured in Portraying a Nation.

Dix’s postwar paintings exemplify the stylized realism of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a predominant art movement in Weimar Germany. His paintings and prints draw on past masters, such as German Renaissance painters Matthias Grünewald and Hans Baldung Grien, as well as Francisco Goya, who retooled traditional realism to his own ends. While studying at the Königliche Kunstgewerbeschule (Royal School of Arts and Crafts) in Dresden, Dix absorbed the explosive harmonies produced by Vincent Van Gogh. This boisterous impressionism freed him to portray war and its consequences in uncensored physical totalities. His art speaks to infernal traumas and corporal tortures, spontaneous ferocities and methodical brutalities that define humanity as an insatiably war-hungry species.

Otto Dix, “Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor)” (1924), etching on paper, 196 x 291 mm, Otto Dix Stiftung (© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung)

Comprised of five portfolios containing ten prints each, Dix’s 1924 etching series War (Der Krieg), based on his experience in WWI, will overwhelm the viewer’s senses. Life and death intermingle. Ravaged corpses resemble suffering bodies, gas masks evoke unburied skulls, human viscera dissolves into earth, and troops are indistinguishable from the fiery trenches and ravaged landscapes in which they advance and retreat, fight and die. Standing before these harrowing images of war, injury, and death, the viewer can almost touch the barbed wire and smell the mustard gas.

Dix’s portraits of Weimar Germany’s social life, including artists, bohemians, and his friends, brilliantly capture the affectations and styles of his subjects. His portraiture documents the hedonism and heady atmosphere that pervaded certain sectors of German life in the 1920s. “Portrait of the Jeweler Karl Krall” (1923) captures the campy arrogance of the nouveau riche in the middle aged, bespectacled jeweler’s ostentatious pose and self-congratulatory air.

Otto Dix, “Portrait of the Jeweler Karl Krall” (1923), oil paint on canvas, 905 x 605 mm, Kunst und Museumsverein im Von der Heydt Museum Wuppertal, Germany (Kunst- und Museumsverein im Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal / Photo: Antje Zeis-Loi, Medienzentrum Wuppertal. © DACS 2017)

Krall’s expertly tailored brown suit blends into a velvety backdrop of greens and browns. He appears both hyper-animated and superfluous, just another colorful object in a jeweler’s atelier. His disproportionately large hands, one adorned with a pinky ring, clasp his willowy hips, while his torso undulates upward in a sweep of feminine curves. His pursed lips, reddened cheeks and bald head blaze like gaudy jewels, rippling with pinks and blues.

For a portrait of photographer Hugo Erfurth with his dog from 1926, Dix depicts the man and dog in parallel profiles against a turquoise wall and a brown and gold curtain. As in the Krall portrait, a well-appointed interior serves as a stage for spotlighting the pathos of upper middle-class German life. Dix skillfully attends to the large dog’s vigorous musculature and firm posture, sleek hair, firm ears, half-opened jaw, beveled teeth and protruding tongue, and alert orange and brown eye; each canine feature has a counterpoint in Erfurth’s human figure — his stooped shoulders, sagging cheek, prominent chin and floppy ears, and mild, uncertain and glazed eyes.

Dix frequently conflates the animal and human kingdoms, undermining human civilization’s illusion of progress or superiority. Even the most passionate lovers in his artworks evoke prey and predator. In the frequently reproduced painting, “Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin,” (1927), the scantily clad woman’s bare left arm, vanishing in and out of the leopard skin, suggests a metamorphosis, underscored by her feline gaze. Although she seems to lurch out from the picture plane, she appears to be arrested in her forward motion. As in many of Dix’s eroticized portraits, the viewer is both drawn in and driven back. We are voyeurs, complicit in Dix’s creation of an irresistible human zoo.

August Sander, “National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture” (c.1938, printed 1990), photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 260 x 192 mm, ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010 (© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017)

The range of human situations and individualized histories in Portraying a Nation are nearly impossible to summarize. For Sander and Dix, as for the rest of Germany and the wider world, the aftershocks of The Third Reich continued for years after the war. Sander’s plates for Faces of Our Time were destroyed by the Nazis, and, in 1946, thirty thousand of his negatives were destroyed in a basement fire. As for Dix, he was dismissed from his teaching position at the Dresden Academy of Fine Art following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, and his art was famously paraded in the state-sponsored Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in 1937. Though both men lived on for decades after the war, neither totally recovered the creative momentum of the Weimar period. These images and histories linger in one’s memory long after the visitor leaves the Tate’s sharply curated exhibition.

With fascism on the rise — and, arguably, already governing in the United States and elsewhere — the cliché “it can’t happen here” comes to mind. As Portraying a Nation demonstrates, that it that can’t happen here, does. Moreover, it is hard to comprehend its mechanisms when they are working upon us, and harder still to grasp how what is happening now was already set in motion.

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 continues at the Tate Liverpool (Albert Dock, Liverpool Waterfront, Liverpool) through October 15.

Tim Keane's writing on poetry and visual art has appeared in Modern Painters, The London Magazine, Utne Reader, The Brooklyn Rail, Vision China, and in Joe Brainard's Art (University of Edinburgh...