Culture  Dark world

The Musée des Beaux-Arts launches a retrospective on the disturbing work of Otto Dix

The first museum exhibition to be shown in North America, Rouge Cabaret: The Terrifying and Beautiful World of Otto Dix, presented in conjunction with the Neue Galerine in New York, seems like a retrospective on an entire school of painters. The artworks on display feature not only the breadth of German expressionism, from highly subjective emotional paintings to precise social satire, but also German art since 1400. It all goes under the moniker “Otto Dix,” an artist who worked within the paradigm of German art but with a distinctly grotesque yet comic style, covering the worst of trench warfare, sexual violence, and even the awkwardness of fatherhood. Dix’ horrific content in his highly personal yet flexible style justifies the museum’s attention on the show, and poses the curatorial challenge of organizing the work of such an anomaly. As Dix himself said, “I am neither political nor tendentious nor pacifistic nor moralizing nor anything else.”

Born in 1891 and growing up into World War I, Dix found himself swept in the nationalistic Nietzschean fervor entering the war that stressed a test of the self best conducted in warfare. And like most other German soldiers, had that fantasy quickly shattered in trench warfare. He fought actively throughout the war, and drew all the while, but wouldn’t publish a definitive representation of his war years until 1924.

The series of prints titled Der Krieg (German for “War”) must justify admission on their own. They successfully present the atrocities of war within Dix’ spectrum of pitch-black humor. Each piece in the portfolio covers a different aspect of the war in a different manner, leading to more gruesome kaleidoscopic rendering of war than Der Krieg’s most compared war print series, Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra from 1820. Goya’s tortures and slayings appear scientific next to Dix’ work: caricaturish soldiers trudge through mud and flesh under the watch of jeering skeletons. “Lens Being Bombed” depicts what happen if Ernst Kirchner’s detached Dresden street denizens were about to be blown to pieces. Typical of Dix and the show itself, Dix uses Der Krieg to encompass a variety of German art historical visualizations. Trench images draw on the illustrative immediacy codified in the pre-war Die Brücke movement. The vaguely disturbing “Sailors in Antwerp” turns the sexual promiscuous hinted at in early modern genre scenes into desperate and realized sexuality.

Dix’ bizarrely detached self-aware presentation of horrific content creates the propelling rhythm in the exhibition’s first-half. The stunning Wounded Solider from 1922 shows a fairly standard frontal watercolour portrait, albeit with the titular soldier’s exposed bleeding war wound. This combination demonstrates certain German expressionist aspects’ appeal to pop culture today (see the entire career of Tim Burton), a seemingly inevitable willingness to tap into a mildly neutralized ghastliness. As guest curator Olaf Peters said in an interview, Dix “may be the only artist who talks about lasting while killing someone.” Self-Portrait, Grinning Head Resting on Hand shows Dix as a smiling fanged monster – survivor’s guilt as gothic caricature.

In 1925, Dix settled in Berlin and began a steadier career as a portrait painter, both as a commissioned artist and unofficial street observer. But whereas earlier expressionist movements presented the artist as a flaneur recording a mechanized, disconnected citizenry, this post-war populace is now mutilated and broke. The War Cripples focuses on the gruesome exposed anatomies of card-playing veterans, in a somewhat geometric quality that testifies to Dix’ breadth of artistic versatility and affinity for the work of Georg Grosz, a leading light of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement. Fittingly, Dix’ more official portraits combine a rigid formality with self-expression. Dr. Heinrich Stadleman depicts the trappings of a successful bourgeois doctor’s office with a ghoulish, sunken green-tinted version of the doctor himself.

Dix’ portraits of prostitutes, one of the more-advertised areas of the show, combine depictions of Mary Wigman-esque prowling women and more interestingly, a sensitivity towards de-sexualized female nudes such as pregnant and older women rarely seen in early German modernism. Sex and prostitution are given the same dark humor as in the war images. Still Life with Widow’s Veil satirizes both early modern vanitas still-lifes’ and Berlin brothel society with a human spine and mask, mocking vanitas’ emphasis on subtle reminders of death and showing the connected nature of sex, death, and social performance in a shocked post-war society.

But Dix’ sardonic and grotesque treatment of the everyday did not change from its comfortable place in Weimar brothels to Nazi Germany. In 1933, Dix was fired from his teaching position and forced out of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Dix was featured prominently in Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art), the famous traveling exhibition used by the Nazi Party to showcase base, obscene art.

In the weaker end of the exhibit, Dix’ work mellows into landscapes based on his new home in Lake Constance. Works like Saint Christophorus IV almost have a Biedermeier sensibility in their light tones and classical forms. But as Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator of the museum, stated in a press conference, Dix’ work moves from the critical to the allegorical, such as implementing iconography from Renaissance battle paintings. And in this way, Dix is the anomaly “trapped in Germany due to his art,” as Peters said. Der Krieg uses a monographic pallet from the prints of Albrecht Dürer, the most famous Northern Renaissance artist and one highly valorized by the Nazi Party. Dix’ still-life with a human spine and widow’s veil is egg tempera on wood panel covered by oil graze, a technique distinctly from the early modern era. Dix tapped into a modernist aesthetic but in the context of a highly classical sense of German art history, to the extent that he could, according to Peters, sell paintings to Nazi officials even as he work was branded “degenerate.”

In the advent of CIA-exported Abstract Expressionism after World War II, Dix fell of the artistic map, resurrected as a proletarian example by the GDR and archetype for an enormous German cultural self-consciousness that emerged around 1968 in sync with historically self-reflective events such as Auschwitz trials. Dix poses the contradiction of positing himself in “the line of the old great German masters,” as Peters stated, but with a highly subjective style that avoids the classification art history loves to canonize. Indeed, it seems more natural to have taken so long to present a Dix exhibition, for an artist who willingly reveled in the margins.