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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Otto Dix

Otto Dix Self-portrait, 1926
William T. Sherman said it best, and in the fewest words: "War is Hell." The German writer, Ernst Junger used a few more words but painted an even starker picture. "One day while I was forcing my way, alone, through the undergrowth, I was surprised by a gentle whistling and gurgling noise. I moved towards the sound and fell upon two corpses which seemed to have been called back by the heat wave to a kind of life in death. The night was heavy and silent; I remained there for a long time, fascinated, watching this disturbing scene. The war was the "war to end all wars" which in itself is a cruel statement of the nature of war. Besides generals, writers and artists go to war too. And after it is all over, the hell they have absorbed pours from within them. Otto Dix went to war. He saw what Junger saw and he drew it. He drew it in a series of fifty etchings known as the War Cycle Etchings. He saw heads blown apart, body parts missing, the process of putrefaction, and he drew it all. In every gory detail he brought home to a defeated, debased, decadent, diseased Germany of the 1920s the horror and hell of war.

Parents of the Artist, 1921, Otto Dix

Sylvia Von Harden, 1926, Otto Dix
He painted too. Dix's first painting, from 1921, a portrait of his parents, portrays the debilitation of war behind the lines. His mother sits sullenly on a torn, green, Victorian sofa, its color nearly matching that of her haggard face (above). His father, tired, pale, and bony, very nearly tumbles forward, out of the picture plane, into the viewer's lap. There is no love, no sympathy, no tenderness, and no reason for hope. And as bad as the war was, Dix saw an even worse state in postwar Germany. His portraits, such as that of Sylvia Von Harden (left),  painted in 1926, or Woman Lying on a Leopard Skin (1927, below), which depicts the German actress Vera Simoilova, are a mix of repulsion and seduction, opulence and vulgarity. Both paintings are rife with sexual ambiguities, figures ostensibly female with disturbingly masculine characteristics. Dix knew the seamy side of Dresden and Berlin well. He wallowed in it:  "Do not bother me with your silly politics, I'd rather go to a whorehouse.

Woman Lying on a Leopard Skin, 1927, Otto Dix
Otto Dix was born in 1891 near Gera Germany. As a teenager, he served apprenticeships both in painting and as a decorator before attending the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts. The war found him groveling in the trench on both, France and Russia. After the war, in Dresden, he co-founded a secession called "Gruppe 19" and later "Young Rhineland." During the 20's and 30's, he dabbled in Dada and a movement he started himself called "Neue Sachlichkeit" (new objectivity). Despite the ravages of war upon his body and soul, he moved up to first-rate galleries in Berlin during the early 1930s until Hitler came to power and branded his work "degenerate." He was dismissed from the Dresden Academy where he taught and his work, totaling over 260 paintings and prints, confiscated by the Nazis; then used to form the bulk of their traveling "Reflections of Degeneracy" show between wars. World War II found him too old to fight, but under virtual house arrest, his work severely restricted. In the end, he was conscripted into the "Volksstrum" home defense force and ended up a French prisoner of war. His postwar work was largely religious in nature, perhaps a refuge from an even more horrible war making sardonically laughable the "end of war" claims of his first conflict.  He died in 1969 as the world was once more learning that WAR is spelled HELL.

War, circa 1928, Otto Dix

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