Following World War I, Germany experienced a burgeoning of artistic creativity unequalled in Europe. The Roaring Twenties, a time of joyful and unbridled revelry, was also marked by violence, poverty and decadence generated by a disastrous political and economic situation, which Otto Dix observed with an unflinching eye. His depictions of battlefield scenes illustrating the horrors of war, dejected veterans reduced to begging, and the moral misery of prostitutes fallen victim to a social order that had lost its bearings, as well as compelling portraits of anonymous figures, bohemians and intellectuals, were all conveyed in a brutal realism that is as disturbing as it is fascinating.
The 220 works of the exhibition, including about forty rare and fragile paintings, many of them painted in tempera on wood panels, large watercolours and powerful prints, illustrate Dix's acerbic yet moving vision of the eventful era in which he lived, from World War I to World War II, from the Germany of the Weimar Republic until the fall of the Third Reich.
1. THE TRENCHES
1. THE TRENCHES''I studied war closely. It must be represented realistically, so that it is understood. The artist works so that others can see that such a thing existed.'' – Otto Dix
In the twentieth century, ''the age of extremes,'' violence assumed an endemic character. This was the century of two world wars, followed by a succession of post-1945 conflicts fought in the shadow of enduring ideological blocs, as well as an ever-present danger of global terrorism. The political and social fault lines that prevailed after World War I had bred violent clashes that led inexorably to World War II. Wolfgang J. Mommsen characterized World War I as the Urkatastrophe (originating catastrophe) of the twentieth century.
In 1914, along with thousands of other young Germans and Europeans, Dix volunteered for the front. The war aroused general enthusiasm, and most of these young soldiers considered self-defence a legitimate reason to join in the conflict against Russia and its allies, France and England. Many of those who were committed to fight were also motivated by the Nietzschean concepts of the will to power (Wille zur Macht) and self-transcendence. Friedrich Nietzsche's books—The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Human, All Too Human—were very popular at the time, especially among the circle of friends and writers who visited Dix at Gera and Dresden. These writings appeared to offer a true guide for living, and the ultimate test of the principle was war, seen as a supreme opportunity to assert and fulfill oneself.
Leaving aside the political context, Dix's keen interest in Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy undoubtedly spurred his eagerness to go off to war. He had studied Nietzsche intensely from 1910, and it is significant that Dix's only work in sculpture was a portrait bust of the philosopher (confiscated as ''degenerate'' in 1937 and since lost). However, the Nietzschean ideals of the power of strong, superior men probably had less influence on Dix than his wish to take part in the war and experience everything with his own eyes.
It did not take long for Dix and his contemporaries to learn the difference between war heroics in the abstract and the brutal reality of battlefields, military hospitals and mass graves. Individual valour was eclipsed by industrial-scale, anonymous slaughter. Throughout most of the conflict, Dix served as a machine gunner in the trenches of both the western and eastern fronts. He regularly took part in savage battles and direct hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. In October 1918, he was promoted to the rank of vice-sergeant major and began pilot training, perhaps to escape being killed at the front in the final weeks of the war. Dix drew incessantly throughout the period, focussing on rendering the complete metamorphosis of the landscape—craters, trenches, barbed wire and ruins—rather than depicting the true horrors of the war. This was to come only in the early 1920s, when Dix would become one of the most eloquent anti-war artists of his century.
2. THE STREET''There is so much that is strange in what surrounds us that there is no reason to use or seek out new subjects.'' – Otto Dix
Otto Dix's coming of age as an artist coincided with the fourteen years of the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) in Germany, a period of great social, political and economic upheaval.
In 1918, Germany was a society torn apart by strikes, riots and perpetual political conflict. The German army, said to be invincible, had returned from the war decimated. There were almost two million soldiers dead, as many orphans and a million widows. The people of Germany were convinced at the time that the reparations imposed by the Allies were utterly unjust. Another scapegoat was offered through the stab-in-the-back theory, which blamed Jews and socialists for every calamity that followed, including civil unrest, hyperinflation and bankruptcies.
This period of political and economic tensions, accompanied by profound moral distress, was auspicious for the Social Democrats. They proclaimed the country a republic on November 7, 1918, resulting in the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Led by President Friedrich Ebert, the new Republic acquired a constitution in 1919 and established a steadfastly liberal political order. Despite the violence and rampant inflation, there was major social progress (unemployment insurance was established; the workday was reduced to eight hours; women were granted the right to vote) and rapid modernization. The booming cities became catalysts for the tension and exhilaration of this ''mass society'' in the making.
But the new regime awoke fears, shamelessly exploited by anti-democratic forces. Those living in the Weimar Republic were dancing on the edge of an abyss. Dix, like many artists of his generation, witnessed this society in turmoil undergoing massive change and the collapse of traditional ways. Settling in Dresden (1919–1922), then Düsseldorf (1922–1925), Berlin (1925–1927) and back to Dresden (1927–1933), he mainly painted portraits and street scenes until the advent of the Third Reich in 1933.
3. THE BROTHEL''We wanted to see things naked, to see them clearly – almost without art.''
''…stop bothering me with your pathetic politics – I’d rather go to the whorehouse.''
– Otto Dix
Omnipresent in the major cities of the Weimar Republic, the prostitute is also widely found in Dix's paintings. Through a remarkable series of paintings and watercolours, he depicted women of all ages and types who had turned to prostitution in the street or in brothels to survive. Rejecting traditional aesthetic conventions, he painted his subjects in a theatrical style, heavily made up and eroticized, beautiful or ugly, yet did so with sensitivity and empathy. Eschewing moral judgments, he portrayed this mechanical and commercialized sexuality as a commodity, a temporary outlet and source of deviancy, at times macabre. He reveals to us the sordid and pathetic denizens of this world with penetrating perceptiveness, almost like insects in a display cabinet.
The prostitutes' bodies are depicted with a bizarrely heightened physicality. This is not simply a reference to the poses of showgirls and erotic models: the drawing out, stretching and bending of the bodies is also a veiled critique of the dubious and absurd German mania for physical fitness that was the subject of Joachim Ringelnatz's Turngedichte (Gymnastic Poems) of 1920. The reverse side of such contortions is the déformation professionnelle—the whore's body drained of all its vigour and substance.
In his harbour scenes, Dix is attracted to the stereotype of the debauched sailor who devotes his life to freedom and pleasure. This romantic figure—the antithesis of the inhibited bourgeois man with his simple-minded licentious fantasies—clearly inspired Dix's imagination in creating such risqué, vibrantly coloured scenes. Often revealing traits of his own, he views women in a decidedly predatory fashion. Thus, the artist distinguished himself from the emasculated, half-blind, physically debilitated types he portrayed elsewhere.
4. THE GALLERY''When I say to someone, I would like to paint you, then I already have the picture inside me. If someone doesn’t interest me, I don’t paint him either.'' – Otto Dix
In the middle of the 1920s, Dix turned to a stridently realistic painting style, rooted in a more objective representation of life and the human condition. Called Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), the movement was officially born in 1925 as part of an exhibition organized by Gustav Hartlaub, director of the Kunsthalle Mannheim.
For Dix and other artists associated with the New Objectivity, including George Grosz and Max Beckmann, cities were places to observe people's predilections. Driven by the desire to create uncompromising portraits of their contemporaries, they produced startling paintings characterized by meticulous detail. Prostitutes, unemployed workers, sailors, acrobats, war veterans and working-class children—but also businessmen and intellectuals—are captured in all their humanity, offering an almost documentary overview of post-war life in a German metropolis. These artists shared a complete understanding of the pictorial tradition of the old masters, to which they added the plastic inventions of the avant-garde. The differences lay in their somewhat caricatured and discordant treatment of their subjects.
Dix emerged as the greatest portraitist of the Weimar Republic. His paintings—more than those of any other artist—defined the visual identity of the era. The brief period of economic and political stability brought about by the Dawes Plan in 1924, lasting until the stock market crash of 1929, helped stimulate the art market and, especially, the demand for portraits, which underwent a true ''golden age.''
Dix's models are not only businessmen and doctors, but also intellectuals and artists whom he chose for their personalities or physical characteristics. Many of his friends and patrons appear in the portraits collected here. Faithful to his exploration of the human condition, Dix expressed both their individuality and social identity, defying any notion of the beautiful or the ugly.
Dix was adept at modifying his technique to his artistic intentions. Influenced by his time in Italy and exposure to the Renaissance painters, he favoured a technique borrowed from the old masters requiring delicate execution: oil mixed with egg tempera and meticulously applied to a wood panel in multiple fine layers (glaze). This smooth and very clear surface highlights the richness of the tones and precision of the lines. From 1926 on, Dix's work received growing institutional recognition, culminating in his appointment to the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, and five years later to the prestigious Prussian Academy of Arts.
5. THE EXHIBITION''That was my ideal to paint like the masters of the early Renaissance'' – Otto Dix
NAZISM AND ART
« Comment Montréal risque de perdre un chef-d'œuvre. »
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's chief of staff and Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, published a five-point manifesto in 1933, stating ''what German artists expect from the new government.'' It read:
1. All works of a cosmopolitan or Bolshevist nature must be removed from German museums and collections, but first the works must be exhibited to the public, who should be informed of the details of their acquisition, before the works are burned.
2. All museum directors who have ''wasted'' public monies by purchasing
''un-German'' art must be dismissed immediately.
3. No artist with Marxist or Bolshevist connections must be mentioned henceforth.
4. No box-like buildings are to be built. (Architecture designed and promoted by the Bauhaus School [Bauhaus meaning ''House of Building''] was based on the use of geometric forms. The school would close in 1933.)
5. All public sculptures not ''approved'' by the German public must be immediately removed.
In an effort to rewrite art history and purify it of any international artistic influences, the Nazis laid out an elaborate program targeting any artists, museum directors and museums linked in any way with the avant-garde. This would culminate in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, organized five years later.
ENTARTETE KUNST - 1937
The Degenerate Art Exhibition
This exhibition which opened in Munich on July 19, 193,7 brought together more than 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books culled just weeks before from thirty-two public museum collections in Germany. The exhibition set out to clarify for German citizens by defamation and derision exactly what types of modern art would not be tolerated by the Third Reich and would thus be considered ''un-German.''
The word Entartet is essentially a biological term, defining a plant or animal that has changed its characteristics so much that it no longer belongs to its species. This attack on the international avant-garde, which also targeted music (including jazz), literature and cinema, exploited the average German's distrust and non-comprehension of these new art forms in order to promote the Nazis' political aims against Jews, Communists and non-Aryans.
The exhibition in Munich was free, but closed to those under 18 years old, because the works were considered to be of an obscene character! It attracted over two million visitors in four months, later travelling throughout Germany and Austria, where nearly one million more visitors saw it over the next three years. The average daily attendance was 20,000.
Why did the Nazis strip 16,000 avant-garde works from Germany's museums and organize this massive exhibition, which included the works of 112 artists? The brutal attack was instigated by Adolf Hitler, who, as a young man in Austria, had shown an interest in painting and drawing. However, his artistic talents were never recognized, and he was turned down when he sought admission to the Vienna Academy of Art.
Nazism also had its own aesthetic agenda. At the same time as the Entartete Kunst exhibition, in March 1937 in Berlin, Hitler inaugurated the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), the creation of which he had personally overseen. Dedicated to the promotion of officially sanctioned art, it exhibited works whose artistic merit lay in their imitation of nature.
6. THE LAKE: INNER EMIGRATION''I painted landscapes – That was emigration.''
''I was condemned to the landscape… I stood in front of the landscape like a cow''
– Otto Dix
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Dix was included among those whose art was defined as degenerate. Shortly after, he was dismissed from his position as professor at the Dresden Academy on the grounds that his paintings ''violate moral sense and thus endanger all moral reconstruction'' and ''are likely to detract from the will of the German people to defend itself.'' He and his family decided to move to Randegg, then to Hemmenhofen on Lake Constance (near the Swiss border).
During the early years of the Third Reich, Dix's method of working underwent a striking transformation as he adopted stylistic pluralism as a strategy for coping with the censorship imposed by the Nazis. It was a time of ''inner emigration.'' He turned to allegorical expression, borrowing Christian iconography (such as the theme of Saint Christopher) and metaphorically portraying scenes of winter and menacing forests in toxic colours. All this enabled Dix to create an iconographically filtered critique of the Nazi regime under cover of ''aesthetic immunity.'' Between 1934 and the start of the Second World War, he painted some 150 landscapes. He had painted only one of the genre between 1913 and 1934. Since models in the country were hard to find, and his caustic portrait had long been criticized and his nudes considered impudent, landscapes became a solution that allowed Dix to create art that was socially and commercially acceptable.
Despite the official ban, his dealer, Karl Nierendorf, organized an exhibition of Dix's landscapes in 1935. But Dix's circumstances, both financial and political, were precarious. From 1936 on, he no longer had the right to exhibit: 260 of his paintings were withdrawn from German museums, eight were included in the Degenerate Art exhibition and a large number would be sold at auction or destroyed during the war. In 1939, he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned for two weeks because his name appeared on a secret list held by the Reich Central Security Office identifying the ''leaders of the Weimar system.''
Drafted into the German militia in 1944 at the age of 53, Dix was taken prisoner in France in the waning months of World War II. In 1946, he returned to Germany to live in Hemmenhofen, while keeping a studio in Dresden. He abandoned the meticulous technique of the old masters that had characterized his output for almost two decades, adopting a more spontaneous and expressionist style, essentially painting commissioned portraits and landscapes. During the last years of his life, he received various national and international honours. He died in 1969.
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Otto Dix (1891-1969), Reclining Woman on Leopard (Portrait of Vera Simailowa) (detail), 1927, Oil on wood, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art,
Cornell University, Gift of Samuel A. Berger, © Estate of Otto Dix / SODRAC (2010)