New York

Otto Dix

OTTO DIX IS A KEY FIGURE, but he has never been held in as high regard in America as his contemporaries, such as Max Beckmann and George Grosz. The German artist played no part in the fertilization of the New York art world by European refugees during World War II (Dix was in a French POW camp at the time), nor have we ever seen enough of his work here to understand his role in his own day. In 2006–2007, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted its incredible “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” which did much to contextualize Dix, suggesting he was a deeper and more complex artist than his mostly academic treatment here had indicated. Now we have “Otto Dix,” currently at the Neue Galerie and curated by Olaf Peters, which purports to be a survey of the artist’s oeuvre and which does offer a somewhat more thorough and differently skewed impression of Dix’s contribution than the one left by “Glitter and Doom.”

The Neue Galerie is a wonderful museum, one of New York’s treasures, but “Otto Dix” is not a wonderful show. The museum is too small to present the work in real depth, and some of the artist’s most important paintings are either barred from travel or were on loan elsewhere too recently to be seen again here; from that point of view, one can certainly sympathize with the curator. (There is also the sad fact that a number of crucial works of the early ’20s were destroyed.) But even with all this in mind, the selections and ordering of the work still seem garbled and out of focus, leaving one vainly searching for some overarching narrative to connect all the dots. (The catalogue, though full of fascinating material, functions less as a history than as a collection of specialists’ musings.) There are many remarkable works included, but an understanding of their function within the artist’s complex development remains approximate.

DIX WAS BORN IN 1891 and emerged from the singularly German early-modern stew of Expressionism, Dada, scary politics, and war—the same stew that produced such diverse chroniclers of the human landscape as Beckmann, Max Ernst, and Kurt Schwitters. Until roughly 1920, Dix, working in a capable but generic Cubo-Futurist style that was ubiquitous at the time, showed little sign of the specificity of vision that would later emerge. What did set him apart from the pack was his enthusiasm for war. Dix had seen extensive action in the Great War; while we might imagine a young artist haltingly clarifying his aesthetic (no doubt in graduate school) at this time in his life, Dix was instead heading up a machine-gun platoon in the German army, in the trenches where a large slice of his generation was slaughtered. As he said later of the war, “I certainly didn’t want to miss it. You have to have seen human beings in this unbridled state to know something about them.” There was a bloodthirsty quality to Dix that seems unique among those artists who fought in the conflict (and is distinct from the Italian Futurists’ hysterical techno-anarchy). Many who survived either repressed the experience or, like Ernst, addressed the horrors of the war indirectly through variants of science fiction or satire. Dix confronted his demons in a completely different manner.

The artist returned from the war with a lot of attitude, determined to throw a witheringly honest reflection back at the very culture that had perpetrated and endorsed the horror. He was priapically ambitious, aiming to be “either famous or infamous,” as he put it. From 1920 on, Dix set about developing an appropriate delivery system for this critique and for the frightening and terrible subject matter that would perpetually haunt him. (He spoke later in life about the years of vivid nightmares he suffered after the war and about how his work functioned to “banish” these memories.) This phase of things is well if somewhat randomly represented in the current exhibition. For example, Dix made hundreds of watercolors throughout the ’20s, developing a curiously dry facility with the medium. Images of hookers, soldiers, and clueless bourgeois fat cats, and scenes of the aforementioned fraternizing—all rendered in a practical illustrator’s style with only occasional eruptions of showy technique—are here interspersed with drawings of men with their faces shot off, dismembered human bowels, and discorporated human brains. Partly due to our immersive “image culture,” and partly due to an overcrowded installation, any capacity for this work to shock or unsettle us has been eliminated. Certain works, such as Prostitute, 1920, and Brothel Matron, 1923, do stand apart, their cartoonishness kept in check through an exquisitely restrained hand, and we can see that Dix had much more in mind than off-putting one-liners.

A synergistic reciprocity between subject matter and technique in the artist’s work is vividly demonstrated in the exhibition’s rich display of prints. Dix’s most effective evocation of the war, and the conflict’s most fruitful influence on his work, occurred in the large series of etchings published in 1924 as the portfolio “Der Krieg” (The War). The obvious (and conscious) precedent is Goya’s “Disasters of War,” and Dix’s etchings reach back to a tradition of reassuring graphic mastery while embodying martial imagery as intensely as front-page photojournalism. In Shock Troops Advance Under Gas, Dead Man in the Mud, and Nocturnal Encounter with a Lunatic, the medium and the message fuse. The implements and conditions of basic etching all have loose parallels in warfare: sharp tools, acid, metal, machinery, and the application of great pressure, which reinforce and bind together the subject matter of the prints.

Dix’s paintings underwent a rapid stylistic metamorphosis right after the war, as he absorbed the provocative strategies of Dada and grappled with his own emotional state. There was a jerky but inexorable evolution toward Neue Sachlichkeit, the highly self-conscious and superficially tradition-bound approach that would characterize Dix’s own sensibility until the late ’40s. In the exhibition, the progression from Lady with Mink and Veil, 1920, to Little Girl in Front of Curtain, 1922, shows the artist turning from seemingly edgy painting conventions and obviously contemporary subject matter toward a neo-traditionalism fraught with emotional baggage and ambiguous intent. This attitude lent itself to portraiture, at which Dix excelled, and there are some fine examples here, notably Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons, 1925, a beautiful painting reminiscent of the work of Egon Schiele. These highly refined pictures underscore Dix’s lifelong interest in self-portraiture—although a better term might be self-representation, given the diversity of aspect displayed in his pictures of himself. Self-Portrait with Nude Model, 1923, and Self-Portrait with Muse, 1924, show the artist in different “work” situations, dripping with weird gravitas. In the former, we get a sense of the dapper arrogance Dix frequently presented (as well as a disturbingly misogynist not-so-under-tone); in the latter, another version of the artist is seen, a sort of philosopher-scribe “taking the measurements” of a voluptuous, mad-looking muse with vividly rendered body hair. In these works, the technical chops disarm one’s skepticism about the subjects’ plausibility in serious contemporary painting. By looking back to German masters like Dürer and Cranach for stylistic reinforcement through the filter of his twitchy, somewhat PTSD sensibility, Dix placed his subjects in a space of unusual existential discomfort.

But one can’t fully grasp the nature of Dix’s vision without seeing works like Metropolis, 1927–28, the enormous, fabulous triptych that never leaves its home in Stuttgart, Germany. The full-scale cartoons for the painting were included in “Glitter and Doom,” so one at least had a sense of what is at stake in them. In the present exhibition, the misguided decision was made to display details of Metropolis on light boxes installed in the stairwell. This gesture raised more questions than it answered, mostly about the museum’s apparent unwillingness to accept the limitations of its circumstances.

DIX WAS A MAJOR PLAYER in the art scenes of Berlin and Dresden, Germany, exhibiting widely, enjoying many portrait commissions as well as a reputation for controversy, and holding a prestigious professorship at the art academy in Dresden. All this changed when the Nazis took power, and Dix was quickly banned from showing and teaching. He seems never to have seriously considered leaving Germany (for all his interest in jazz and progress, he was cynical about America, and he was equally sure the Nazis would destroy all his work if he abandoned it). He chose a state he called “inner emigration,” which basically meant going to ground at his country house and lying low when possible. The exhibition includes good examples of the landscapes Dix made during this period, and they are strange: extremely competent, evocative in an almost fairy-tale sense, but also diminished, as though some vital energetic connection in the artist’s psyche had been cut or suspended. The last work in this exhibition is Saint Christophorus IV, 1939, a bizarre allegory that, given the timing, must have some relation to the artist’s wartime situation. The painting feels historically unhinged; it could easily have been made by an obscure member of the Italian Transavanguardia in the 1980s. It also clearly demonstrates the potential slide into kitsch implicit in Dix’s approach.

During Germany’s desperate closing phase of the war, Dix was drafted (he was fifty-three), then captured, and spent a year as a prisoner of the French. His work changed, manifesting a new scruffiness (he said he had spent too much time in the past using “the tip of the brush”). He was the only major prewar visual artist to be absorbed into the “cultural elite” of the GDR, even participating in the first Documenta in 1955. His late work is not very well known, and while it is unlikely to spur a complete reevaluation of the artist’s career, it was, sadly, totally unrepresented in the exhibition.

After seeing “Glitter and Doom” a few times, I became convinced that Dix was an enormously important missing piece of the story of early modernism and that To Beauty, the extraordinary 1922 painting included in that show, was a defining work of the period—only a notch below Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or the “Large Glass” and equally central as a point of origin for one of the key (and underacknowledged) trains of thought in our artistic legacy. It is difficult to emerge from “Otto Dix” with the same conviction, but one does retain a sense that, while we should see this guy better, we just can’t quite manage a clear view. History was both with and against him, in ways far more vivid and direct than many of us ever experience, and the contingencies of fate have made it hard for us to accurately reconstruct his achievement.

But he does seem to stand for something. In the October 2009 issue of this magazine, there appeared an advertisement for a show of recent paintings by Georg Baselitz at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, which features a photo of the artist standing before a painting, an inscrutably saucy look on his face, and holding just below the belt a slightly crumpled Xerox, which on closer examination turns out to be a reproduction of Dix’s Girl in Front of the Mirror, 1921, now lost. This painting also appears to be the compositional basis for the picture before which the master stands. There is too much to unpack in this picture to do it justice here (for example, I don’t know whether the wordplay of holding a “Dix” in front of your “dick” works in German), but the salient point is that Baselitz, a leading figure of the return to a German tradition of painting after the historical amnesia and denial of the postwar period, is thinking quite a bit about Otto Dix. This alone tells us that Dix is part of the historical force behind that rich German painting scene that was vomited onto our radar screen in the ’80s. A better understanding of Dix might serve another purpose here in America, his “story” being perhaps less apposite than his stylistic positioning. His confrontational conservatism seems, in fact, to predict certain recent developments in American painting. What is clear is that the seemingly postmodern turn to tradition, the melding of contemporary subjects and undeniably, utterly skilled technique, a strategy that today may stem from an exhaustion with modernist academic orthodoxy, was actually a challenge lying within the modernist project from its inception. And each time it is enacted, it has a different tone (Dix, Balthus, and John Currin are up to quite dissimilar things). Dix was present at the birth of this unstable fusion, and his disagreeable, arrogant determination to keep his head above water in the torrential rush of history should command our attention and our respect, as we sleepwalk toward whatever encounter with such irrational forces awaits us.

“Otto Dix” is on view at the Neue Galerie, New York, through August 30; the exhibition travels to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which coorganized the show, Sept. 24, 2010–Jan. 2, 2011.

Carroll Dunham is a New York–based artist.