Otto Dix: War, Parody, Sensuality At the Neue Galerie

Currently showing at the Neue Galerie is a tripartite exhibit of works by the German Post-Expressionist Otto Dix (1891-1969) with a splashy array of color and emotive themes. For the first time in North America and selected from collections in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, over 100 works by Dix are united in a single exhibit. After serving as a soldier in World War I (1914-1917), Dix experienced life under both the Weimar government and the Third Reich. The resulting output depicting the artist’s intense reactions to those experiences is the subject of the current exhibit.

Post-Expressionism or Neue Sachlichkeit—New Objectivity—is widely considered neither an extension, nor an outgrowth of, Expressionism; its central focus, rather, was opposition to social and governmental hypocrisy. In expressing subliminal aspects of emotion and psychological conflict, facial features and body parts are exaggerated or otherwise distorted bringing normally cloaked aspects of character to the fore, thus reflecting hidden realities. Otto Dix and his contemporary George Grosz are regarded as the two principal icons of Neue Sachlichkeit.

Early Life and World War I—Der Krieg

Dix was born in Gera, less than 100 miles west of Dresden. His childhood artistic inclinations were encouraged by one of his teachers, and by age 19, Dix relocated to Dresden for further training. While there he was no doubt exposed to German high culture and art as well as those of other European centers of cultural life. An early Dix painting, Sunrise, 1913 bears strong stylistic and thematic resemblance to Van Gogh’s (1890) Wheat Field With Crows suggesting an intimacy with both the work of the latter artist and a similar natural milieu. In 1914, as World War I approached, Dix, at age 23, volunteered for military service, enduring life in the trenches for three years. Hundreds of drawings and guaches ensued and, in 1924, gallery owner Karl Nierendorf published a selection of Dix’s war output.*

The works derived from Dix’s war experiences are of nightmarish quality. Images of degraded, mutilated and dismembered people, while stemming from Dix’s ordeals, seem within the realm of phantasm. Mealtime in the Trench depicts a scene of horrid deprivation and terror. The single figure crouches for safety, scrounging a tin-can meal amidst the scattered remains of his compatriots. Reminiscent of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885), its subject is psychological decrepitude and overwhelming helplessness in the face of unmanageable and terrifying circumstances. The shriveled gore of Dead Sentry in Trench presents a shocking portrait of humanity reduced to the objectified body; the drawn, thin-lined technique underscores the idea of the human body as an empty carapace where not a remnant of life remains.

The Weimar Years and Nazi Rule/Portraiture

Installation of a liberal democratic government followed in the wake of World War I and the German Revolution in 1919. By the late 1920s, the Weimar Republic foundered under the weight of its own bureaucratic bloating, while rising Nazism darkened the national mood. The artist’s response to the hypocrisies of the Weimar government produced various depictions of personal self-satisfaction. It is here that Dix’s capacity for satire and caricature finds refined expression.

Stylistically, many of the portraits suggest the skimpy-lined renderings of Modigliani. Dix’s Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons (1925), at top, is a case in point, as is Portrait of the Poet Iwar von Lücken (1926), above. The lawyer, seated and well-suited, nevertheless greets the viewer with an expression of an “in-the-know” smug realist, whose clear-eyed, direct stare, pinched mouth and angular jaw defy reproach, while the gesturing, elongate, meticulous hands and fingers emphasize their bearer’s authority. Even the wavy, well-coifed, upswept hair suggests presumption. Conversely, the poet appears in somber tones, with an anemic complexion, tousled hair and oversized, rumpled clothing. The eyes are sunken and shrouded in grey and brown shadows. All in all, an image of one who has perhaps seen, and felt, many of life’s more grievous events; possibly the rainbow setting of the sun in the background is emblematic of the poet’s remembrances. While the lawyer, Simons, sits in a barren space, the poet, von Lüken, is provided a delicate yellow rose, symbol of friendship and, perhaps, in deference to his artistry.

Dix and Women

The various paintings of nudes and breasts galore at every stage of life provide insight into the artist’s psychological juxtaposition with women. Often the women are overshadowed by a brooding man in the same frame, suggesting female eroticism as a subtext of male sensual experience. In one exception, the striking Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber (1925), above, on first glance, suggests a sultry mood. Deep tones of red in the dancer’s dress and background present a strong image, while the red hair and angular jaw evoke a personality of headstrong willfulness. The lady’s eyes are heavily made up in black perimeters and brown shadings, and the small, precise lips are nonetheless vividly rendered in red. We learn from the exhibit notes that the painting’s coloration is meant to depict the subject’s own tendency to self destruction. And yet, the rounded belly, smallish, delicate breasts beneath the slinky drapery of the lady’s dress, and the suggestively positioned shoulders and hands, all evoke an earthy femininity.

Otto Dix’s life experiences rendered him a complicated individual and a complicated artist, but one for whom the world held enough interest that his broad creativity and intelligence could distill it all to works of profound feeling and, indeed, beauty. In concept and design, the Neue Galerie has filled a long vacant niche in the cultural life of New York City and for its multifarious visitors. Rather than multiplying the profusion of Renaissance, Romantic, Impressionist, Abstract Expressionist venues, the Neue Galerie has created a classy boutique exhibit sensation of German and Austrian avant garde and Modernist art. In bringing the world of Otto Dix’s works on canvas together with verve, intelligence and sensitivity, they have scored a triple play.

Otto Dix: Through August 10, 2010
The Neu Galerie
1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street
New York, New York 10028
Thursday through Monday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

* Some factual information is culled from technical/historical data supplied by Ms. Leah Ammon, Director of Communications, Neue Galerie.

Further Reading: 2003, Elger, D. Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art. Taschen.