It has sometimes been remarked that, no matter how gruesome the injuries depicted in classic war films like Platoon, or Hamburger Hill, directors generally recoil from showing wounds to the face. The face expresses the soul, perhaps, and the thought of its destruction is too much to bear. Not so for Otto Dix. The very first image you encounter in the Neue Galerie's substantial new survey of Weimar Germany's greatest portraitist is the drawing Wounded Veteran (1922). It is as if the Western Front has reconstructed itself on the soldier's body: a bloody trench runs up the right side of his face, entirely obliterating an eye. Following this, we meet Human Brain (1920), then Human Intestines (1920) - no doubt spoils of the hours Dix spent in the pathology department of a hospital, preparing for his 1924 print portfolio, Der Krieg (“The War”). And thereafter comes the 50 print series Der Kreig itself, in all its inglory: Goya's print series Disasters of War updated for the 20th century.
Otto Dix's career offers a perspective on an interesting dialogue about the human figure that ran throughout the 20th century. Proud, struggling, thinking, heroically acting: the figure was central to the Western tradition of art from the Renaissance through the 19th century. When Leonardo produced his famous drawing Vitruvian Man, around 1487, he made the human figure the measure of all things; he could do so because the flourishing of the Renaissance gave him optimism in the power of humanity. But just as innovations in abstract art encouraged artists to break the figure apart in the early years of the 20th century, so too did the horrors of war. Many artists who witnessed the horrors of World War One - as did Dix, spending three years as a non-commissioned officer with a heavy machine-gun battery on the Western Front –weren't so sanguine about humanity's prospects by the end of it, and one of the ways they commonly registered that pessimism was to distort the figure. In fact, throughout the 20th century, when artists have put the human figure front and center, they've often done so to comment on our prospects.
One of the most intriguing revelations about the Neue Galerie's survey of Dix is the way in which he seems to have been so ambivalent about the problem. It's true that there isn't much warmth and good humor in his work of the 1920s - indeed, there is little but bile. Prostitutes and sailors are his recurrent motifs - or, if you will, sex and death: humanity feeds on itself. His nudes are sad creatures, and even when he shows himself with a nude, in Self-Portrait with Nude Model (1923), any trace of warmth or desire is expunged in favour of a cold, stiff portrayal: Dix will not allow himself the pleasures of the decadent characters he depicts elsewhere - characters he despises. Only the subjects of his commissioned portraits are afforded some respect: the lawyer Dr. Hugo Simmons (1925) is depicted with unusually cool clarity. But even some of those are subject to vicious caricature: Dr. Fritz Glarner (1921) doesn't sit so much as lurk in his chair, the icy building in the backdrop evoking the ice in his soul.
Only towards the end of the exhibition does Dix resolve to entirely abandon his Expressionism, his touches of caricature, and his obsession with sex and death. And, finally, in 1932, comes one of the few optimistic pictures in the show: Nursing Mother, a portrait both sensitive and plausibly real. Though it isn't long before Dix is careering off again on another strange path: one of the concluding pictures is the bizarre pastel-hued fantasy Saint Christophorus IV (1939), which shows the giant saint lumbering through a river with the infant Christ on his shoulder. If Dix started with man scarred, he ends with divine beings at discordant scales. Showing humanity intact, content, and composed, was something Dix simply couldn't allow himself to do.
Article written by Morgan Falconer
Senior Editor of TheArtStory