Wednesday, 23 May 2018


Otto Dix was a German artist who is now celebrated as one of the great painters of the twentieth century, probably in no small part because he was put on the National Socialists' list of degenerate artists, as, to the unthinking postmodern Left, anything the National Socialists hated is automatically considered good. Equally though, the postmodern cultureless cartoon Nazis of today's corrupted Right consider him a degenerate artist also simply because his artworks were deemed Entartete Kunst by the NSDAP. The irony is that Dix's work is far more congruent with the concerns of the Right than those of the Left and so I thought it was about time to reassess the man and his oeuvre.



One cannot help but draw comparisons here between Dix and a certain other German artist and war hero. While Adolf Hitler was refused a place at the Viennese Academy, Dix was mentored by Richard Guhr at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Dresden, with whom he was to maintain a lifelong friendship. Guhr's tutelage is interesting, because Guhr was a Wagnerite who openly blamed organised Jewry for the decline and increasing degeneracy in the arts, especially during the Weimar period, and Dix must have been made aware, as the two became lifelong friends. Certainly, one or two of his paintings demonstrate his awareness of the Jewish question, like 'Pragerstraße' (1920), in which a pamphlet bears the headline 'Juden raus!':



Philo-Semitic art critics have attempted to imprint their ideology on the painting, even going so far as to claim the war-wounded beggar is a Jew as delineated by his features. Yet there is nothing Jewish about his face: his beard is golden and his nose not hooked, but as broken as the rest of him, his eyes, feet and an arm missing completely. They have also pointed to the other pamphlet which talks about a 'Diktatur von rechts', but again these are typical of political propaganda leaflets being distributed at the time. The point is what is not being talked about, which is the wounded veterans of the First World War, who are having to beg in the street and here both symbolically and literally in the image being reduced to the level of dogs while the comfortable bourgeoisie walk by in their finery and the shops stock goods they cannot afford, including the prosthetics that might make their lives a little easier. When juxtaposed with the pamphlet about the Jews, it naturally leaves the viewer to associate the two and there is no question that the Jews prospered as a group during this time. Pragerstraße was the main commercial street in Dresden where Dix lived and such scenes would have been commonplace. We also see here Dix's black humour on the subject, the man in the bowler hat appearing almost like the child's toy. This theme of wounded soldiers and their ostracism from mainstream Weimar society is typical of this period of the artist's development, as seen in the tryptich 'Großstadt' (1928):



This painting displays all the corruption of Weimar Germany. While the central panel shows a lavish bourgeois soirée painted in rich warm colours, it is flanked by the outer panels that reflect a paler outer world of prostitutes, wounded soldiers still in their old uniforms and snarling dogs that keep them away from 'polite society'. One might also remark on the style here, which ist modernist in keeping with the times. Yet Dix, who as we will see was an accomplished technician, turns Neue Sachlichkeit against modernist society. Neue Sachlichkeit's rejection of Romanticism, Futurism and Expressionism meant a hard critical eye on a world stripped of glamour and feeling. It naturally gives rise to satire and caricature, which is readily observed in the two paintings above, even if the latter is technically superior and more realistic. The Weimar Republic is stripped of its facades and Dix looks to the dark psychology behind it, the character of the society itself being imprinted on faces and bodies, the most famous examples being Dix's portraits of the dancer and actress Anita Berber (1925) (below, top) and the journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926) (below, beneath):




Addicted to alcohol and various opiates, bisexually promiscuous, Anita Berber was often a dancer and actress in the more euphemistic sense and died in poverty while in a marriage of convenience to homosexual American dancer Henri Châtin Hofmann, aged 29. In the painting, she is only 25, yet the toll of her lifestyle is seen in both face and body, making her seem haggard, old before her time. As with Sylvia von Harden, the body is twisted and contorted as a reflection both upon the psychology of the modern woman and upon Weimar society at large, and one also notes the symbolic use of the colour red. Von Harden was to report the conversation she had with Dix in a 1959 article 'Erinnerungen an Dix' about how the portrait came to fruition:


'I must paint you! I simply must! .... You are representative of an entire epoch!'
'So, you want to paint my lacklustre eyes, my ornate ears, my long nose, my thin lips; you want to paint my long hands, my short legs, my big feet—things which can only scare people off and delight no-one?'
'You have brilliantly characterized yourself, and all that will lead to a portrait representative of an epoch concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition.'


If women are portrayed as ugly and twisted as the male war veterans in their caricatures, the men who inhabit the bourgeois Weimar society have often become effete and effeminate to the point where pubic grooming has become de rigeur, as in 'Der Gott der Friseure!' (1922) (below), in which the male has become a pale self-absorbed mannequin surrounded by wigs and perfumes, and there is a definite suggestion that, like Tony Blair, he might be called Miranda in certain bars at the weekend:



Dix's attitude here is interesting because it seems that modernity is stacked up against masculinity. In becoming an industrial abbatoir, the old outlet of war is stripped of its opportunity for glory, while peacetime society lures men into vice and effeminacy. It is a quandry that has still been unresolved, the question being left to mentally retarded and unstable feminist and LGBTPJQ+ activists, who have not even been able to resolve their own issues. We see also in Dix's paintings that waiting as a scavenger to pick the bones of post-WWI Europe, the odd Negro has crept into society in paintings like 'An die Schönheit' (1922) (below), seen as a lasciviously grinning chancer, ever ready for opportunities for white women and aided and abetted by the bourgeois businessman, an ironic self-portrait, telephone in hand, ready to sell out his people in another transaction:



In both this painting and the aforementioned 'Großstadt', one notices the music associated with Weimar degeneracy: jazz, which recalls the words of Herman Hesse in Der Steppenwolf:


 From a dance hall there met me as I passed by the strains of lively jazz music, hot and raw as the stream of raw flesh .... I stood for a moment on the scent, smelling this shrill and blood-raw music, sniffing the atmosphere of the hall angrily, and hankering after it a little too. One half of this music, the melody, was all pomade and sugar and sentimentality. The other half was savage, temperamental and vigorous. Yet the two went artlessly well together and made a whole. It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors .... There was something of the Negro in it, and something of the American, who with all his strength seems so boyishly fresh and childlike to us Europeans. Was Europe to become the same?


Jazz, whether viewed as a positive, a negative or a mixture of both by artists and writers of the time was always seen as an entry point for Americanism and for multiracialism, just as rock and roll would be in the 1950s. Here, the Negro's lecherous evil grin suggests Dix views it negatively and one notes the American Indian design on his bass drum, the whole scene foreshadowing Hesse's 1929 novel. Indeed, one cannot help but note that Jews were at the forefront of promoting the Jazz scene both in Germany and America, as Henry Ford noted in his publication The International Jew. Perhaps Dix's most revealing painting regarding Jewry is 'Kreuztragung' (1943) (below), in which we see an Aryan Jesus being flagellated by two Jews in contemporary dress. 




The Aryan Jesus is in keeping with National Socialist ideology, with key philosophers and theologians like Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Dietrich Eckart and Walter Grundmann having attempted to remove Christianity from its Semitic root by promoting the erroneous idea that Jesus was not of Jewish stock. This we see here, contrasted with the swarthy and Semitic features of Jesus' persecutors. One might be tempted, given the date of the painting, to put it down to pressure from NSDAP officials, but Dix was not forced to paint at all. Indeed, when the NSDAP came to power in January 1933, Dix was removed from his position as lecturer at the Dresden Academy for the reason....


....that one finds among his pictures such ones that are seriously harmful to the moral sentiments of the German people and others that are wont to adversely affect the martial spirit of the German people.


It is an interesting quotation and one can see both sides. Even in the decadent Weimar Republic, Dix's paintings had been brought into question, with 'Der Schützengraben' (1923) (below) that depicted the full horror of a World War One trench having come in for extreme criticism after its exposition in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne:



The following year, the Jewish painter, banker and art collector Max Liebermann had it exhibited at the Prussian Academy of Arts. There is no doubt here that Liebermann meant it as part of a concerted Jewish attack on German sensibilities, as much as Otto Dix had not. For Dix, it was about portraying the harsh realities of industrial warfare as a reminder that such wars were to be avoided.  The NSDAP also exhibited the painting, but in the 1937 exhibition of entartete Kunst. This was very much a disservice to Dix, who was apolitical, but equally one of the Weimar Republic's biggest critics in the arts. The NSDAP could not have wished for a better propagandist during the 1920s! Yet National Socialist ideology was predicated on militarism, as seen in the quotation above in the reason for his sacking, and perhaps instead of destroying his artworks (the one above is considered lost) they perhaps ought to have listened to what he had to say, as Germany lurched towards another war. It is important to remember that Dix had not always had the same attitude to war and, like Hitler, had rushed to enlist at the outbreak of World War One, painting his Futurist 'Selbstbildnis als Mars' (1915) (below):



The portrait borrows from Cubism and features himself as the God of War in full ceremonial uniform surrounded by the violence of war. While Hitler grew to celebrate war, however, Dix grew disillusioned with the pointless industrialised slaughter, the disillusionment exacerbated by the post-war treatment of the wounded. Dix could and did also paint positive, inspirational pieces. His 'Selbstbildnis mit Jan' (1930) (very top), Jan being his own son, demonstrates the power of paternalism, the celebration of new life in Europe and the artist as creative force. The land behind in the picture is without detail, which emphasises the boy held aloft in the sky, golden as the sun. Equally, regularly inspected as he was by NSDAP functionaries, he spent most of the National Socialist era painting landscapes when he was not involved in the war effort again as a soldier. Below is one such painting, 1938's 'Berninalandschaft':



After the Second World War, Dix's work really did degenerate, as occupying Judaic ideology in the arts took over, and there is little more to say about his daubing in the latter period of his life. So what is the lesson here? It is that there must always be a balance of cultural control and freedom in society. National Socialism's heavy-handedness saw even supporters like Emil Nolde being banned. One must always be aware of the difference between healthy critique of society and unhealthy critique of society in the arts, between an intent to improve it and an intent to destroy it. Certainly, Otto Dix's concern was for his fellow war veterans who had suffered more than himself and to warn of the effects of further mechanical warfare. In the homeless ex-servicemen begging on the streets, we see parallels today, as our own European servicemen are sent off to the Middle East to fight for corporate and Israeli interests, where they are killed or maimed, and the survivors then treated as stray dogs upon their return, an increasing number ending up on the streets. Perhaps we could do with an Otto Dix today, whose shock value, unlike that of the artists today, was not divorced from meaning and pathos and spoke truth to power.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy these essays on painters. I'm no expert in the field, bar the classics, but I know what I like and you've helped me uncover excellent works. My father, who I've been sharing these with also finds some joy.