The Sacred and the Decadent: Otto Dix

This was an older critique I had written back in 2010. I was inspired to recall it because of a wonderful Goddard student – Margaret Medina – who conducted a great workshop during my first Goddard residency. That first residency is now a blur [I’m loath to admit I can’t remember the workshop name] but it was terrific. It was about magical realism. Which brings me to my recollection … In reading Salmon Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” and seeing Margaret this past residency [my second – her graduation] we had a moment to catch up and I again considered the role of art in culture, magical realism in writing, and the synthesis of creativity and how cultures evolve and crumble – often simultaneously. In any event, Margaret used an image from an Otto Dix painting [In the Salon 1]to illustrate the connection between what we think we know and what can be found in the implied. It’s all about using our minds and jumping off that proverbial cliff to arrive at the chaos that will change us. Congratulations to Margaret and thank you for opening up the channels of thought!

Otto Dix
The Neue Gallery, New York City
Organized by Olaf Peters, Professor of Modern Art History and Art Theory at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg,

The Salon 1: Otto Dix

The Salon 1: Otto Dix

I had previously only known Dix as a master of depicting the vivid characters that inhabited 1920s Berlin. It seemed that the decadence of Berlin’s cabarets and the explosion of nightlife were his oeuvre – but Dix portrayed much more that that. The political backdrop of this era is crucial to understanding Dix’s work. Like any decadent society, Weimar Germany spawned a diversity of culture and class. The end of Imperial Germany led to an explosion of innovation and creativity and yet, war had left a deeply scared society. It is this schism evoked by contradictory ideals that Dix portrays so powerfully. By the time the Nazi’s assumed power, Dix had masterfully become a powerful social critic – so much so that 260 of his works were seized by the Nazi’s and he was forbidden to show any of his work again in Germany.

While in the trenches during World War I, Dix rendered several hundred works devoted to the subject of war. To view a selection of these images on a wall at the Neue Gallery, one is plunged into an alternate reality. Ravaged souls peer at us from the frames with faces and limbs half blown off and yet, they possess a veritable defiance – existing and living as part of society despite their gruesome disfigurements. Dix was consumed with those who endured war’s horrors and he was compelled to depict the atrocities undiluted. The intensity of his black ink etchings appropriate a photographic quality as they rivet us in the moment – we are confronted with a reality that has hitherto been hidden.

Two Victims of Capitalism: Otto Dix

Two Victims of Capitalism: Otto Dix

The scope of this reality is not surprising, since The First World War stands as the defining historical event of 20th century Europe. In Germany, war’s end paved that way for The Weimar Republic. Great paradoxes existed side by side as a post-war economy created extremes in wealth and poverty. A fractured, decadent, plagued republic fueled Dix’s interpretations of German life. The decadence of the period is reflected in his portraits. Without regard to the status of his subject, Dix depicts each in a similar manner. He is seemingly able to turn their souls inside out. Traits that even they cannot know are magnified under Dix’s microscope and like a photograph, we see a complete narrative unfolding before our eyes.

Three Prostitutes on the Street: Otto Dix,1925

Three Prostitutes on the Street: Otto Dix,1925

The subjects of an Otto Dix portrait are ill proportioned and oddly off-balance caricatures, trapped in their own design – consumed by an epoch from which there is no escape. The whores, the distraught, the businessmen, the upper classes, the lower classes, the soldiers missing limbs – are all given the same treatment. Dix bears their souls to us and we cannot look away. The distortion of his subjects reveals an interior life; it is as if the entirety of a person is etched in a Dix portrait.

No one is glamorous or beautiful here. Dix manages to convey the garish inner nature of a hedonistic era. We see clearly, a society in the midst of sublime decay. As we roam through the corridors of his palette, the narratives are equal to the photographs of Cartier-Bresson. Dix reveals moments in time that will never be seen again. His sly depiction of upper class hypocrisy remains his legacy. Dix at his best reveals a culture that oppressed more than they nurtured. The bourgeois and the proletariat remained at odds with each other and this lack of empathy is reflected in Dix’s portrayal of his sitters.

Dedicated to Sadists: Otto Dix, 1921

Dedicated to Sadists: Otto Dix, 1921

“Dedicated to Sadists” was my favorite work. It is unforgiving of its intent and portrays two unapologetic subjects complicit in their activity of – well, sadism. It is at once alarming, funny, and a succinct document of an era in history. Two women stand with the accoutrements of their profession – whips. They both smile but one stares directly at us, waiting for our acknowledgement – whip in hand, ready to begin.

— Deborah Johnstone

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