Otto Dix

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait, 1922

A friend just posted me a link to the show of newly discovered Dix watercolors in Dusseldorf, reminding me I’ve been wanting to do a post on Otto Dix, continuing along the exploration of Weimar Germany on the posts concerning George Grosz, Beckmann, and Rudolf Schlichter. The Weimar artists have always been important to me in the past but given the current economic and cultural collapse in the US along with the cult of militarization, their work is ever more salient and meaningful.

Dix studied art at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts  in 1909 (the Dresden whose fire bombing by the allies Kurt Vonnegut so powerfully portrayed in Slaughterhouse Five). Just as with the Royal Academy when Turner and Constable received schooling, the Dresden Academy didn’t offer painting instruction in Academic methods. Dix taught himself, just as Turner did, by looking at and studying intensively Dutch, Italian and German masters. As with all the other Expressionists, Vincent van Gogh was a prime influence. Dix was introduced toVan Gogh’s work at an exhibition in 1913.

Dix was seriously wounded on several occasions during the first World War and his experiences there were determinative as far as how he saw and depicted the world subsequently. He founded the Dresden Secession Group in 1919, a group which included Oskar Kokoschka, who’s another painter I want to take up when I have a chance.

His art, of course, was targeted along with other Modern painters by the Nazis. As well as his “degenerate” work being banned he was dismissed from his post at the Dresden Academy in 1933, a post that he’d held since 1927. He remained in Germany during the war years under Goebbels’ Cultural Ministry, which was mandatory for all artists in the Reich. But he still made secret paintings kept from sight of Nazi officials.

He died in 1969.

Otto Dix, The Seven Deadly Sins, 1933, oil and tempera on wood

Envy is the figure seated on the back of Avarice. The Hitler moustache wasn’t painted on until after WWII, when it was at last safe to do so.

Sloth is prominently featured as Dix put the blame on the German people for their lack of action or involvement in allowing Hitler and the Nazi Party to rise to power.

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2 Responses to Otto Dix

  1. I’m glad to see your post re: Otto Dix. I had the priviledge of viewing his Der Krieg (War) series, 1924 at a current exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, Belligerent Encounters: Graphic Depictions of War and Revolution, 1500-1945. This series is one of the most incredible graphic testaments to the horror of war that is so relevant today. We need to look at these images lest we forget and remain aloof from the true experiences and reality of war. The work is so very visceral rather than keeping an intellectual or conceptual distance as much contemporary art seems determined to do. There’s a good representation of it here, Interestingly, Dix is quoted as saying that he was compelled to enlist (WWI) in order to experience war up close and that he was fascinated as well as horrified. This comes through in the work.
    The exhibit also includes Beckman’s Hell series and Hoerle’s Cripples Portfolio, as well as work by Goya who was a major influence on Dix’s War series.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Hi Susan,

    Sounds like a terrific exhibition. Thanks for the link. I’ve also read that remark by Dix and it reminds me of the excellent book by Christopher Hedges War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hedges has been at the forefront of speaking out against the current wars. He lost his job at the New York Times because he refused to be silent about the second Gulf War. Hedges was a Times reporter in various conflict zones including Bosnia, El Salvador and the Middle East. His book looks at the kind of euphoric appeal of war that not only excites the soliders and war planners, but also galvanizes civilian populations. Remember that World War I was seen by some artists, like the Futurists, as desirable. From the Futurist Manifesto declared “We will glorify war–the world’s only hygiene–militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” What you don’t see in Futurist painting is any of the consequences of their thoughtless stupidity. You have to go to the Weimar Germans for that as well as painters like Paul Nash in Britain.

    I agree that the contemporary art world is a study in avoiding any known human reality for the most part. The artists that I’ve seen that appear to be addressing it are doing anything but. They’re either the typical photo derived reportage or “conceptualized” detachment, particularly in the US. We support the troops kind of nonsense. Depicting savaged corpses would be considered “tasteless” in the contemporary art world.

    Dix was wounded several times, including a piece of shrapnel in his neck that almost finished him.

    His level of experience of the madness of the trenches would be markedly different from an artist like Steve Mumford, which is exactly the kind of work that the contemporary art world would accept and probably even consider “edgy”. Mumford was “in harms way”, but all the work I’ve seen by him could just as easily have been done by someone sitting at a drafting board copying a photograph. And looking at the drawings there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s taking photos and drawing from them. It’s completely neutral work in terms of any feeling one gets from a work of real art. Look at Goya’s Disasters of War or Dix or Grosz and what you have is the visceral horror of it. Look at Mumford and you might as well be looking at a photo in the New York Times, who having learned the effect on morale of publishing the horrors of Vietnam, invariably keep the horror discreet. Mumford does the same thing.

    Mumford might as well be doing war illustrations for the State Department and be a part of the war effort. Grosz and Dix were decidedly not a part of the war propaganda ministry.

    When I see work like Mumford’s I think “What’s the point of being an artist?” His work is no more interesting than any typical photographic footage by any embedded photographer.

    Artists are supposed to actually say something, at least in my definition of them.

    One of the few media outlets actually doing serious reporting on the reality of the Iraq war is Rolling Stone. Contrast these photos to what you see in the Times and in Mumford’s work.

    A clear indication of how immoral we’ve become as a nation is that Rolling Stone can print pictures of war crimes and it doesn’t even raise a mention in the corporate press, nor is there any kind of public outcry. In the Vietman War, the My Lai massacre was a national disgrace and led to court martial of Calley. The country’s image of itself as a force of morality was shocked into reaction. Now, apparently extrajudicial killings and torture, killing civilians and mutilating the corpses are not to be mentioned in “polite society.” And an artist like Mumford makes sanitized and selective illustrations that bring us not a bit close to the reality of war or our silent approval of it.

    One of the 80 prints in Goya’s Disasters of War series. None were published during his lifetime. He died alone and in exile. His final works, the 14 Black Paintings were painted on the plaster walls of his house, where but not for a stroke of fate in the form of a nearby art lover they would have been demolished by a wrecking ball. Even in their diminished state due to the damage from time and mounting the crumbled plaster onto canvas backing they’re still an astonishing experience when seen at the Prado.

    To reinforce my point about just how inane contemporary art appears to any sentient being looking around at the real world they inhabit, Roberta Smith has just supplied me with MoMA’s latest exercise in nihilistic decorator chic. Next to what is happening to the planet and in this society, work by artists like Johns, Stella, Rauschenberg, Naumann, who are invariably seen as the intellectual stars, look like something made by lobotomized mental patients. Perhaps millions of dollars thrown at one has that effect. It seems to contribute to the Ostrich mentality of the art crowd at the center of the operation. Can one imagine Otto Dix showing up with his latest painting of “collateral damage” (that means women, children and old men) from a predator drone attack included in the MoMA canon of geniuses?

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