Published: November 2, 2010
Post-World War I Germany was a hotbed of remarkable creativity, unequalled in Europe. In spite of its crushing defeat in war, in the Roaring Twenties the country enjoyed a period of uninhibited revelry that was also marked by political, social and economic upheavals.
Otto Dix (1891‱969), the most shocking major artist among many during this interwar period, was an uncompromising witness to a troubled society. Scarred by wartime service at the front, he turned his unflinching gaze on his contemporaries, from the battlefields to the streets, saloons and brothels of the Weimar Republic to the rise of the Third Reich.
“All art is exorcism,” Dix remarked. Still haunted by the horrors of combat, he felt an obligation to reveal shocking truths, depicting the decadence, poverty and violence of a society profoundly traumatized by the devastation of war.
He found plenty of subjects in a country that had suffered five million dead, two million orphans, one million widows and one million invalids. Blending Old Master techniques with Dadaist freedom, Dix sought not realism and beauty as most artists do, but invoked ugliness and over-the-top satire in his work.
He experimented with various facets of German art †Realism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, folk, visionary †and, needless to say, qualified as a “degenerate” artist under the Nazis.
Much admired in his native Germany, Dix has been long neglected in the United States and Canada. “Rouge Cabaret: The Terrifying and Beautiful World of Otto Dix,” co-organized by the Neue Galerie New York, where it has already been seen, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where it is on view through January 2, goes a long way toward establishing the artist’s standing in this hemisphere.
Curated by German art historian Olaf Peters, this first Dix solo museum exhibition in North America includes more than 200 paintings, watercolors, prints and drawings that begin to do justice to a compelling artist.
Supplementing Dix’s scathing artwork, the exhibition is enriched by photographs, audiovisual material and an exploration of the Nazi campaign of censorship of artists like Dix.
Born near Gera, Germany, to an ironworker and a seamstress, Dix studied painting in Dresden before eagerly volunteering for the German army in World War I. Wounded several times while leading machine-gun squads on the western and eastern fronts from 1915 until the Armistice, he fought in direct hand-to-hand combat and savage battles, including the bloodbath of the Somme, which left more than a million wounded or dead.
Numerous sketches of fellow soldiers, trenches, shell craters, barbed wire and ruins attest to Dix’s extensive exposure to terror and carnage. In one particularly horrific image, “Trench,” 1920′3 (missing and presumably destroyed), he depicted a mountain of decomposing bodies. Its exhibition at a museum caused a scandal and it was withdrawn.
While acknowledging that “war was a horrible thing,” Dix added that “I certainly didn’t want to miss it. You have to have seen human beings in this unbridled state to know something about them.” He wrote a friend about “the pleasurable sensation to be had when bayoneting an enemy to death,” reports curator Peters in the catalog.
In 1923, still deeply affected by his time in the trenches, he executed a series of 50 prints titled “Der Krieg (The War)” showing the everyday life of soldiers at the front, and trench warfare and its consequences, ranging from shell-ravaged landscapes and the shot and mutilated bodies of soldiers to assaults, bombardments, bordello scenes and drinking bouts. “The dehumanizing madness of war, which transforms a human corpse into the cadaver of an animal or a desecrated landscape, is illuminated in these sheets by the glare of Bengal lights or excessive, blinding light,” observes Peters. “The events themselves either sink into the deep black of the background or radiate before the viewers’ eyes in painful clarity.”
Not since Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” has the grotesque, brutal spectacle of war been so clearly delineated. Dix’s prints, which contrasted with the glorification of combat prevalent in the Weimar Republic, were used in an international peace campaign in 1924.
Dix’s coming of age as an artist coincided with the era of the Weimar Republic, 1919‱933, a society torn by political and economic tensions, civil unrest, rampant inflation and a general sense of malaise. After a brief fling with Dadaists like George Grosz, Dix turned to capturing facets of his country in the midst of painful transformations, painting mainly portraits and street scenes until the advent of the Third Reich in 1933. As a painter of the definitive Weimar art movement, the “New Objectivity,” he largely eschewed depth-probing Expressionism to concentrate on stark, external realities.
The most striking portrait of the 1920s, “Dr Heinrich Stadelmann,” 1920, depicts a 55-year-old Dresden psychiatrist, an admirer of Dada, as a spooky, otherworldly figure wearing somber black. Amplifying the sitter’s idiosyncrasies, Dix focused on the large, red-rimmed green eyes of the doctor, who used hypnosis in his practice. The likeness maintains, writes art historian Sabine Rewald in the catalog, “a balance between merciless realism and Expressionist distortion.” It is a haunting image.
By contrast, “The Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons,” 1925, is relatively straightforward and realistic. It was painted in part because the barrister was a subject that interested Dix and in part to thank the cerebral, eloquent lawyer for winning a lawsuit for him.
Prostitutes, a ubiquitous presence in German cities, became staples of Dix’s art. He painted them with objectivity and empathy, whether they were beautiful or ugly, young or old, as heavily made up, usually physically imposing figures who had turned to being hookers in brothels or on the street in order to survive. With brutal honesty, often laced with satire, he depicted scenes such as a well-dressed older man holding a nude on his lap or debauched sailors leering at ladies of the night. He executed numerous images of women of all sizes, shapes and ages, nude from the waist up.
In depicting himself among prostitutes in several self-portraits, Dix revealed “traits of his own, &†[viewing] women in a decidedly predatory fashion,” says Peters. “Thus, the artist distinguished himself from the emasculated, half-blind, physically debilitated types he portrayed elsewhere.”
Dix’s numerous self-portraits usually showed himself as a somber presence, whether with his family or standing fully clothed with voluptuous, naked models. The technique is impeccable, the artist’s detachment palpable in the nude images.
Even though he rarely flattered his sitters, Dix emerged as a leading portraitist of the period. Probing the human condition, he created uncompromising likenesses of his contemporaries †unemployed workers, war veterans, working-class children, sailors, acrobats. He depicted businessmen and lawyers, as well as intellectuals, artists, friends and patrons whom he chose for their interesting personalities or physical characteristics. They are, on the whole, a homely lot, perceptively delineated.
“His paintings †more than those of any other artist †defined the visual identity of the era,” writes Peters.
Perhaps inspired by Francisco Goya’s famed “The Clothed Maja,” 1807‰8, Dix painted a sensual portrait of a seductive women, “Reclining Woman on Leopard Skin” in 1927 that will stand out with viewers. Here, a voluptuous woman wearing a green slip is draped over a leopard skin and red sheet gazing directly at the viewer with mesmerizing cat’s eyes. Behind her, a hyenalike dog, his tongue hanging out lasciviously, bares his teeth. The supreme self-assurance of the woman’s look seems to challenge men both sexually and intellectually.
As Peters observes, “One is immediately struck by the animalistic nature of the scene, even the woman who is wearing her hair fashionably short and thus represents the ‘modern woman’ type of the 1920s, radiates an undiminished, almost dangerous sexuality&” “Reclining Woman” is an apt symbol of the decadence and sexual freedom so rampant at the time.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis set out to purify German art of international artistic influences. They laid out an elaborate program targeting artists, museum directors and museums linked to the avant-garde. Dix was among the artists whose art was declared degenerate, and 260 of his works were confiscated from German museums. Dismissed from his teaching position at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts on the grounds that his paintings violated “moral sense” and were “likely to detract from the will of the German people to defend” themselves, and forbidden to show his paintings, Dix’s financial situation became precarious. He and his family moved to Lake Constance near the Swiss border, where he lived throughout most of the Third Reich.
During the early years of the Nazi regime, Dix changed his style and subject matter drastically to avoid censorship. “I was condemned to the landscape,” he declared as he created mundane landscapes, such as rural villages under snow with ravens flying overhead. In six years he painted 150 landscapes; prior to that he had made only one. He also turned out allegorical and religious works, adopting the theme of St Christopher, including a corny one of the muscular saint crossing a mountain river with baby Jesus standing on his shoulder. In this way, Dix created art that was safe socially and acceptable commercially.
Meanwhile, eight of his works were included in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 in Munich, and many others were sold at auction or disappeared during the war. The degenerate show comprised 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books by 112 artists seized from 32 German public museums. By defaming and deriding these works, the exhibition aimed to clarify for Germans what kind of Modern art would not be tolerated by the Third Reich. By attacking the international avant-garde the Nazis sought to exploit the average German’s distrust and ignorance of these new art forms, and thus advance the Nazi agenda against Jews, Communists and non-Aryans.
The Munich display, free and open to those over age 18, attracted more than two million visitors in four months. Nearly a million saw it elsewhere in Germany and Austria during its subsequent tour over the next three years. Average daily attendance was 20,000.
This savage attack was instigated by Hitler, who as a young man in Austria had demonstrated talent in drawing and painting. He was, however, turned down for admission to the Vienna Academy of Art and turned his attention to political matters.
At the same time as the Degenerate Art exhibition, Hitler inaugurated in Berlin the House of German Art, the creation of which he had personally overseen. It featured officially sanctioned art, mostly of a representational nature.
Drafted into the German militia in 1944 at the age of 53, Dix was taken prisoner by the French in the final months of World War II. Returning to live in Germany, he adopted a more spontaneous, expressionist style while painting commissioned portraits and landscapes. During his final years, Dix received various national and international honors before he died in 1969.
His reputation was overshadowed by postwar interest abstract painting, but began to rebound when young Germans took an interest in art the Nazis had vilified. Dix’s place in German art history is now secure. This revelatory exhibition will deservedly do much to elevate his visibility and stature in North America. The 258-page illustrated catalog contains useful essays by Dix authorities. It is published by the Montreal Museum, Neue Galerie and Prestel.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is at 138 Sherbrooke Street West. For information, 514-285-1600 or www.mmfa.qc.ca .
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