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Art Review: Otto Dix

Between Two Wars:  The Masked Truths of Otto Dix

Following the music emanating from a nearby gallery brings one to a small room lined with etchings from two of Otto Dix’s print series.  An award-winning dancer, Dix might have been amused by the selection of popular German tunes from the 30s and 40s that played continuously while viewers took in the 10 prints of The Circus and the five of Death and Resurrection.

The experience of contemplating subjects like Suicide, Sex Murder and Dead Soldier while feeling the urge to break into a Charleston reflects perfectly the times in which the artist lived.  An artilleryman in World War I who spent three years in the trenches, the artist kept what sanity he could by drawing whenever possible.

After returning to Dresden, Dix pursued recognition for his art while at the same time enjoying the temptations of the Weimar years in Germany, seeking out “revue theaters, film palaces, and circus arenas, the red-light district and the bohemian cafés.” (p. 165)  Everything he witnessed found its way into his art, where he exposed the dark side of the glitter.

The Neue Galerie [1], along with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, has organized a fine review of major works produced by the artist between 1919 and 1939 that includes the 50 etchings of War (Der Krieg), the above-mentioned Death and Resurrection and The Circus, an assortment of paintings in tempera, oil and watercolor, and a number of drawings.

Dix’s oeuvre suggests an unhappy man, one forever scarred by the revelations of trench warfare, which he captured in a disturbing, now lost, work, Trench (Der Schützengraben).  A large painting (89⅜” x 98⅜”) that he began working on in 1920, not long after he returned to Dresden from military service, and completed in 1923, it depicts in gory detail the death and dismemberment of both soldiers and landscape.  The black and white photograph that appears in the catalog (p. 64) barely hints at the power the life size images, particularly the partially shredded corpse carried aloft on fragments of steel beams, must have wielded in full color.

At least of equal impact are the war drawings and etchings displayed in a dimly lit gallery on the lower floor of the exhibit, tucked away in a corner that requires some sleuthing to discover.  Undoubtedly an accidental addition, the large dead fly that stuck to the wall between the second and third images seemed remarkably appropriate, as though attracted by the rotting body parts depicted in some scenes.

One is tempted to categorize the prints of War as either studio elaborations of onsite drawings or riffs and/or exaggerations from the same sources.  Transporting the Wounded in Houthustler Forest, illustrating two weary looking soldiers, each walking with the aid of a cane, carrying a man in an improvised sling of coat and log, could have been sketched onsite and later developed more fully with shading.

On the other hand, Mealtime in the Trench (Loretto Heights) begs to be interpreted as a compilation of two different sketches, one of a muddy and bedraggled soldier eating canned rations and another of a disarticulated skeleton strewn across an incline.  Likewise, The Skull, with worms crawling in and out of the ocular orbits, nose cavity, mouth, and hole in the parietal (top) bone, must surely be more conceptual than actual.  And yet, Dix may very well have seen heads that had reached just such a state of decomposition.  Such is the terrible truth of battle.

After the war, in the cities of Germany, wounded veterans sold matches and begged on the street, prostitutes of all ages paraded their wares, and the upper classes ate, drank and danced in their restaurants and clubs.  Inflation was rampant and poverty widespread.  Somehow Dix managed to assimilate all of this into his drawings, prints and paintings.

Excelling at portraiture, accepting commissions only from figures that interested him, displeasing many a sitter, Dix also featured prostitutes in many of his works.  While some of his subjects’ faces suggest likenesses, others resemble masks.

In two of the many female nudes exhibited, the bodies are described with realistic skin tones while their faces are portrayed as add-ons affixed to their heads and painted in a whitish tone.  The subject of Reclining Woman on Leopard Skin (1927, oil on wood) appears to be holding a mask in front of her face instead of supporting her head on her hand.  The woman in Seated Female Nude with Red Hair and Stockings in Front of Pink Cloth (1930, mixed media on wood) seems to grasp her mask by its forehead and  affix it to her face.

In Still Life with Widow’s Veil (1925, tempera on wood), Dix depicts a (death?) mask hanging from a nail high on a wall over a still life of a glass pitcher of water containing two long-stemmed black flowers sitting on an unusually active white cloth covering a table in front of a pole supporting a section of thoracic spine, with attached ribs, draped with a veil.

Masks have traditionally been used as symbols of death, as in Michelangelo’s sculpture of Night in the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo, Florence.  Associated with theater, masks hide one’s true visage and suggest a false one.  As such, they represent dissembling, deception and duplicity.

The people in the circles Dix aspired to and ultimately joined acted oblivious to the suffering around them.  The artist, with his terrible knowledge of combat, could not be expected to easily make peace with these disparities.

In his 1927-28 triptych, Metropolis (portions of which were displayed on screens in the stairwell), Dix highlighted the dissonance he must have experienced by juxtaposing the reality of maimed veterans begging on the street (side images) with the glamor of upper class revelers in a nightclub setting (center).

With the rise of the Third Reich and its confiscation of “degenerate art,” in 1933 Dix had to flee from Berlin (where he’d been living since 1925) for the relative safety of a friend’s country estate.  There, among other works, he produced landscapes that stand out for both their subject matter and beauty.

In the best of those exhibited, the Elbsandstein Mountains (Schrammsteine) rise up in the background and meet the clouds in masterly rendered atmospheric perspective (1938, oil and tempera on board).  Several houses occupy the middle distance, farmland recedes toward the mountains and also climbs up toward the foreground, where a meticulously rendered leafy tree on the right frames the scene.

Removed from the clamourous environment of Berlin, Dix produced carefully observed,  tightly rendered works like these and others.   Years later, in an attempt to recapture his earlier, freer style, he would repudiate these and other traditionally painted works with the comment, “I have been painting much too much with the tip of the brush for the last twenty years.” (p. 241)

Dix would continue to live in the country until his death from a second stroke at the age of 77 in 1969.  He would work both there and in the studio he maintained in Dresden.

Otto Dix
The Neue Galerie

1048 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

All page numbers referenced are from the catalog:
Otto Dix
Olaf Peters, editor.