New York

Max Beckmann and Otto Dix

War is hell. That truism underscores the first-ever pairing of the entirety of two of the most powerful visual records of World War I: “Der Krieg” (War), 1924, a series of fifty etchings by Otto Dix; and “Die Hölle” (Hell), 1919, eleven lithographs by Max Beckmann. Both artists enthusiastically volunteered to fight in the conflict—Dix serving for four years in the trenches and Beckmann for one year as a medic before being discharged following a nervous breakdown. And both cited—albeit in very different ways—a philosophical underpinning. (Dix referred ironically to Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum “Die and become!” while Beckmann claimed Schopenhauer as an influence.) But, as these portfolios show, both were also subsequently swayed from any faith in the creative possibilities of destruction and violence, dedicating themselves instead to a grisly indictment of the depravity and inhumanity they had witnessed.

Dix, for his part, takes us into the thick of battle, capturing in gruesome detail the staggering atrocities for which the Great War was notorious. He links the human toll that left over eight million dead and twenty-one million injured to contemporaneous technological innovations—aerial bombardment, chemical weapons, and machine guns. We see shell-shocked soldiers eating their rations in trenches littered with the body parts of their fallen comrades. We see terrified civilians running from aerial attacks. We see apocalyptic wastelands pocked with shell craters and crisscrossed by hedgerows of barbed wire stuffed with corpses. In Schädel (Skull), clumps of flesh and hair share the bony surface of a head wriggling with worms and maggots. This and many other images here rival Goya for sheer gore.

The counterpart to Dix’s “embedded” account of destruction on the battlefield is Beckmann’s portrayal of the home front as a living “Hell.” Splintered by Cubist fragmentation, the chaotic, claustrophobic streets of Berlin are populated by lunatics, deranged disabled veterans, and gangs of murderous thugs. In Der Nachhauseweg (The Way Home), he portrays himself being led by a hideously disfigured amputee, conveying the impossibility of a return to so-called normal life. Themes of revolution and patriotism are rendered with biting sarcasm, communicating the pessimism that lies at the core of his particular brand of social commentary. In Das Martyrium (Martyrdom), the Freikorps’ lynching of Rosa Luxemburg is rendered as a modern-day crucifixion. Throughout the portfolio, Beckmann emphasizes that torture and murder—often committed in the name of freedom—have become commonplace.

Does this have a familiar ring? Did someone say “Gitmo”? It won’t be lost on contemporary audiences that conflict cannot be isolated to the battlefield but instead has widespread corrosive effects. In addition to any political ruminations triggered by both series, the similarity between these images and our current (though perhaps waning) penchant for so-called goth disfigurations is uncanny. In relation to Dix’s and Beckmann’s monster mashes, Paul McCarthy’s mutilated pirate heads readily spring to mind. But so too do dozens of other artists who favor lurid visceral imagery: Think of Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series, Robert Gober’s cast body parts, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s freak parade of genetically challenged bodies. Dix and Beckmann moralized unironically and unreservedly, using horror as a means to make strident antiwar statements. How different things are today. Shock imagery has become so pervasive that we are now inured to the caustic effect of images connoting unspeakable horror, and are left instead with the queasy knowledge that they have been sublimated as entertainment.

Jan Avgikos