August Sander. The Painter Otto Dix and His Wife, Martha, 1925/26, printed 1950/64.
  • The Art Institute of Chicago, acquired through a grant from the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation. © 2014 Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv Köln / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • August Sander. The Painter Otto Dix and His Wife, Martha, 1925/26, printed 1950/64.

August Sander took this potent photograph. Whose idea was it to position Otto and Martha this way? On first reaction, I thought it made Otto look like a proto-feminist, looking away from the camera while his female partner faces it head on with her POW! of a gaze. Supporting her, even though he's the more famous one.

Later, I had a creepier, more unpleasant observation: that he appears to be possessing her.

It's a great, strange, conflicted portrait of a marriage. (I don't know much of the actual biographical details; I found only one, not terribly informative web site for an out-of-print book on the many portraits he made of her. They stayed together until he died in 1969.)

Given Dix's brutal paintings and prints, I don't know what I expected from a marriage portrait of him and his wife, but this surprised me by not feeling retrograde in its gender roles. It didn't feel, say, like the coupling of Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, in which that most common narrative played out: avant-gardism in art, check, but never, never, in bed or in the kitchen. (There's a new Höch exhibition in London; here's a nice piece in the Telegraph about her work and life.)

Was Otto Dix a good husband? I don't know. I hope so.