Thursday, 23 October 2014

Otto Dix. George Grosz. German WW1 victims. Philip Mould. Professor Anthea Callen. Mystery Painting of a busker with harmonica.

The Blind Harmonica Player 

This painting of a blind busker was bought in North London at a boot fair. The painting is on a board and is unsigned. The crumbling wall in the background is composed of paper collage. 

Researching the harmonica player has brought up the huge topic of German war victims crippled by World War 1, as the painting is reminiscent of the buskers and beggars painted by George Grosz and Otto Dix during the 1920s. 

The man is playing a 10-hole diatonic harmonica. He looks like a Mittel European. His left hand is out of the picture, implying it is outstretched for coins from passers-by. He seems to be wearing an old civilian uniform, although it is now patched. It looks like that of a hotel porter or a messenger who could have fought and been blinded in the war by mustard gas.

He is in a poor area of town: plaster is crumbling from the wall behind him. His black glasses indicate that he is blind, like those worn by the blind match seller in Otto Dix's painting.  The case for them is in his jacket pocket. He has bad teeth. His shoes look new but the left shoe lacks laces.

Otto Dix (1891–1969)
The Match Seller,1920
Oil and collage on canvas, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

Otto Dix. Prager Straße/Prague Street, Dresden 1920
Stuttgart Art Museum



George Grosz, The Hero, c. 1936, lithograph

Arizona State University, Jules Heller Print Study Room

George Grosz painted a war veteran who is selling flowers rather than just begging. 

"I wanted to protest against this world of mutual destruction...I saw heroism, but it seemed to be blind......what I saw more was misery, stupidity, hunger, cowardice and horror."  Georg Grosz, 1930.

In trying to find out the mystery artist of the harmonica painting, Otto Dix is a putative suspect. 
  • Many of Dix's paintings are still missing. His work was labelled Entartete Kunst or degenerate under the Nazis and some was seized or destroyed. Jewish émigrés who were lucky enough to escape from Germany brought their art to England too.
  • Like the mystery artist, Dix did not always sign his paintings, and he sometimes painted on wood. 
  • Dix's subject matter of beggars is similar to that of the unknown artist. Both the harmonica player and the match seller are earning their living on the streets.  They also wear the same sort of black frosted glasses which were worn by the blind.
  • The style of painting is similar especially the angular hands and fleshy noses. Ears painted by Dix are out of proportion, as are the hands of the harmonica player.
  • Dix started to use collage in his paintings after meeting George Grosz In 1920, who was influenced  by Dada. The crumbling wall in the mystery painting is also a collage.
Nonetheless, all of the above is supposition and wishful thinking. The clue to the painting lies in the green uniform, which would indicate the busker's nationality. Googling the image came to nought, and the web came up with loads of military uniforms.

In contrast to the suffering shown by the Dix beggars, the busker seems to be quite contented with his lot. 

The artist remains an enigma, and a copy of the painting has been sent to Philip Mould, who has an excellent record at discovering the identity of artists, including three Van Dycks. He had a real bargain when he recognised and bought a Gainsborough on eBay for £120.

I have also sent a copy of the painting to Professor Anthea Callen, who was until June 2014 Professor of Art (Practice-led Research) in the School of Art, College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra. She is Professor Emeritus of Visual Culture at the University of Nottingham. Anthea was my great tutor at Warwick University.
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Excellent, fascinating recommended online reading


Museum of Yugoslav History, Belgrade, Serbia

Disability in the Culture of The Weimar Republic by Carol Poore, Professor of German Studies at Brown University.