Otto Dix was first and foremost a critic of capitalism -- a fact obscured by the bullshitizing of his art by Hollywood, that is, the dumbing of it down into entertainment in such films as Cabaret, more pointedly, the neutralizing and kitschifying of its critical content by its assimilation into the society of the spectacle we culturally inhabit. It is the trivializing fate that Hollywood reserves especially for artists who are critical of everything it stands for: the military-industrial complex it serves. The military-industrial-entertainment complex controls consciousness, and it is determined to control -- by treating as comic farce, ridiculing as absurd mischief -- any consciousness that threatens it by reminding it of its tragic flaws and its own absurdity.
Any art that contradicts it by showing its contradictions -- the unresolvable tensions that make it erratically tic(k) -- must be contradicted: debunked as a distortion -- erratic in itself -- and with a worse, and more incurable, tic(k) than society’s. More particularly, any art that highlights capitalist society’s dirty underside of perpetual war, emotional terror and traumatic ugliness, and the desperate pursuit of pleasure that seeks relief from them -- that dares to function as a social conscience, that places blame where blame must be conspicuously placed, that dares to tell truth to power, that accepts responsibility for its crimes against humanity when power will not accept them -- must be prettified into inconsequence, treated as a kind of misplaced glamorization of society. Any art that fearlessly exposes its inherent barbarism -- with an uncompromising, vehement realism more than equal to its own uncompromising, toxic character -- is its enemy, and must be defeated by being re-made as a silly joke, a fatuous burlesque, a media caricature of itself, an artistic folly rather than an exposure of its own folly.
By turning it into facile, cheap entertainment, society took its revenge on Dix’s art, as it did on Toulouse-Lautrec’s art in Moulin Rouge and various films about his life. He also tells the emotional truth about bourgeois society, with equally unsparing accuracy -- holds a revengeful mirror up to it, a distorting mirror that discredits it by telling it is not the fair society it thinks it is -- that it is more freakish and inhumane than any human freaks art is capable of imagining. It has a distorting effect on human beings because it is distorted in itself. Neither Dix nor Toulouse-Lautrec invent anything -- indeed, they have been understood as conservative artists, representationalists and social observers when abstraction and self-observation were becoming the preferred, self-styled “advanced” mode of art -- but rather describe what they see, in all its innocent grotesqueness: for them, reality is stranger than artistic fiction.
They were sharp-eyed social observers who used whatever was artistically at hand, including modern innovations -- Impressionism for Toulouse-Lautrec, Dadaism and Surrealism for Dix -- to make their critical point. Society’s critical, self-conflicted, disturbed state in modernity -- more overt in Dix than in Toulouse-Lautrec -- was of greater concern to them than the critical, self-conflicted, disturbed state of art in modernity, however obliquely they acknowledged it, and, in Dix’s case, railed against the abstraction that divided art against itself, and distanced it from the society around it, whose barbaric indifference to human life it expressed, however peculiarly, that is, abstractly. As Dix ironically said, reflecting on his 1920s Verist paintings, “the fact that so much is pre-ordained [by society] means that one’s originality is noticeably restricted” -- even though it was original to return to tradition, in a self-preservative conservativism, at the height of and in defiance of artistically reckless, socially irresponsible avant-gardism. (Although, as Harold Rosenberg said, it was already past its peak, its heyday being 1914 Paris. All the avant-garde cards were then and there put on the poker table of art, waiting to be played by future hands. And although Picasso had turned to his conservative neo-Ingres style in 1915 -- a pro-tradition regression in the service of the battered, confused, exhausted ego of avant-gardism, which Picasso presciently saw: as always he was in the advance -- ahead of everyone else even in going backwards.)
However different the societies they picture, both Dix and Toulouse-Lautrec show us a society in which the proletariat underclass serves the bourgeois upperclass. In Dix, the poor proletariat serves in the military -- as he did as a machine-gunner in World War I -- that supports the wealthy bourgeois, among them the fat cats pictured in the central panel of his masterpiece Grossstadt (1927-28) (one of the many unfortunate absences in the Neue Galerie exhibition). (His parents, pictured in an empathic portrait, also not in the Neue Galerie exhibition, were hard-working proletariat. Dix remained a devoted family man all his life, as The Artist’s Family (1927) shows. For all his morbidity, he was in love with life, as his amazing portrait of a naked newborn baby -- also missing from the exhibition -- shows.) In Toulouse-Lautrec, lively proletariat performers entertain the jaded wealthy bourgeois, giving them a revitalizing “kick”: it is as though the performers were vigorously acting out the life the passive bourgeois audience lacks -- raising the emotionally dead with their own intense, daring aliveness, uncoiling like a spring during the performance. Dix’s 1922 “Circus” series shows the same fascination with daredevil, life-intensifying -- and life-risking -- performers.
For both Dix and Toulouse-Lautrec, the underclass -- exemplified by the black jazz musicians performing for the white fat cats and their bejeweled and gowned white ladies in Dix’s triptych and the black dancer Toulouse-Lautrec depicted -- is more vital than the upper class, which borrows, exploits, and finally cannibalizes its life. Even the prostitutes both artists depicted are more vital than their customers -- vitalize the sexuality of their male customers with their female sexuality, as though recharging a failed battery -- however more grotesquely vital Dix’s prostitutes are than Toulouse-Lautrec’s. His are famously at rest between customers, while Dix’s strut their stuff on the wings of the triptych, along with crippled veterans -- men who have been castrated by World War I, who have lost their legs and are no longer able to line up and parade as Dix’s prostitutes do. They are also an ugly horrifying waste product of the war.
Just as T. S. Eliot was fabricating his mythical Waste Land in 1922 in the aftermath of World War I -- and the desolation that he felt was the inner truth of the roaring ‘20s and modern society in general -- Dix was depicting the wasteland of the actual war in his own peculiarly mythologizing, outrageous, uncannily realistic way. What was intellectual poetry in Eliot -- intellectualized fantasy, one might say, a sort of nightmare of stultifying decadence preached from the high pulpit of poetry as a moral lesson (Eliot almost always has a preacher’s punitive air; his ritualistic poems tend to read as sermons for the masses, promising to raise them up by telling them how low they have sunk, and thus how futile their existence is, how full of self-loathing and suffering it ought to be) -- was ruthless intimidating prose in Dix, haunted by real death and suffering (not Eliot’s stylized and stylish -- not to say forced and fake -- numbness): Dix’s work belongs to the German tradition of the Triumph of Death -- some of his images have a clear affinity with Baldung-Grien’s depiction of it -- while Eliot metaphysicalizes death, as though it was not the brutal, factual, inescapably physical event it is. For Eliot death is an enigmatic idea rather than an everyday reality, a theme worthy of speculative poetry and philosophical discussion, while Dix makes its real effect -- its destructive effect -- on the body explicit. In a sense, Eliot compromises death by thinking about it, as though thinking would soften its blow, but Dix has seen it in action -- experienced it up close and first-hand -- in war. Death cannot be softened by philosophy and poetry: there is no consolation -- conceptual and esthetic consolation prize -- for it.
Dix has unflinchingly looked death in the face and lived to tell us what it looks like: his “War” series is the greatest rendering of the disasters of war since Goya’s, and even greater in its technical brilliance and candor. For Dix gets to the roots of death, showing us how rooted in life it is -- showing us more grisly skulls than we care to see, stripping flesh to the bare bone. Goya stays on its bleak surface, rarely venturing and confronting its skeletal truth. Dix’s Nude (for Francisco Goya) (1926) makes the point succinctly: the beautiful refined body of Goya’s nude Maja has become ugly, vulgar, and beastly, as her claw-like right hand confirms. She is ready for sadistic action, her hairy crotch more crudely naked and claustrophobic -- hardly inviting -- than even Courbet imagined it in the Birth of the World. She is Death and the Maiden -- an image of the Triumph of Death over youth and beauty -- in one hideous body, suggesting that having sex with a grotesque prostitute (Dix depicts many of them) must have been an unconsciously hideous experience, and as excruciating and death-defying as being an isolated machine-gunner -- sex as well as war is a matter of endurance and survival, however necessary sex is to discharge the profound fear of death (annihilation anxiety) aroused by war, in any kind of dubious pleasure.
Goya also mutes the hard fact of death by suggesting that it is a consequence of war rather than a human inevitability, as Dix does. Death is an “experience” everyone will have: no one is exempt from joining the dance of death. It is what Dix’s conga line of prostitutes perform: death is built into their grotesque bodies. It is also responsible for the strange (and estranging) ungainliness of the bodies of the respectable bourgeois -- professors and doctors as well as businessmen and art dealers (his 1926 portrait of Alfred Flechtheim is also missing from the Neue Galerie exhibition, confirming that it is seriously flawed) -- he portrays. In contrast to both Dix and Goya, Eliot unrealistically theorizes about death, offering us what amounts to a selective encyclopedia of quotations alluding to it, passed off as a poetic vision.
There is not a single harmoniously shaped body -- any form -- in Dix’s art, confirming its anti-Italian Renaissance character, and aligning it with the long tradition of German realism. Where Dürer tried to reconcile Italian idealism and Northern empiricism, making classically proportioned figures that looked like real people, Dix didn’t even bother: his figures are invariably ill-proportioned and oddly off-balance -- stably unstable, one might say. Many of his thin Venuses (perhaps most noteworthily Venus with Gloves (1932) owe a conspicuous debt to Cranach’s -- ironically update them, as it were -- and many of his landscapes are indebted to Danube School landscapes, in particular but not exclusively those of Altdorfer.
What Hollywood accomplished with its brilliant dialectical feat of appropriating Dix’s figures -- banalizing his highly individualized, “scandalous” figures into slick, impersonal, marketable stereotypes -- was to change the Weimar Republic wasteland they inhabited and symbolized into an entertaining paradise: a perverse paradise, no doubt, but still a paradise of free love -- physically free if emotionally costly love -- and, one might add, of “free art.” Without their critical edge and sting, they are fashionable mannequins on a commercial stage, however ostensibly -- superficially -- free spirits, as all figures that seem out of the bounds of social respectability, and charged with raw animal instinct -- all “transgressive” figures that seem to lift the repression barrier -- appear to be. Women in particular, as the risqué, self-destructive, impulsive dancer Anita Berber, depicted in a passionately red body-clinging dress (1925) -- a sort of glistening snakeskin (its redness available in the Neue Galerie shop as glamorous “Berlin red” lipstick, a demoralizing triumph of advertising, packaging and commodification, not to say an “esthetic” cheap shot at Berber and Dix) suggests, along with the feline Reclining Woman on Leopard Skin (1927), who stares (glares?) at the male and for that matter female viewer, and seems ready to spring at and tear him or her apart, as her claw-like right hand suggests. Both are provocative monsters, like a good many of Dix’s females, suggesting that he has problems with women, which is perhaps why he distances himself from them, as in his Self-Portrait with Nude Model (1923), coldly observing them, as though he finally had given up the whorehouses he frequented as a soldier, as he acknowledges, for example in Memory of the Halls of Mirrors in Brussels (1920) and Visit to Madame Germaine’s at Méricourt, part of the 1924 “War” series. The peculiarly Protestant, if non-judgmental ethic, not to say noli me tangere detachment, that informs his realism -- his pictures of the damned and living dead -- is self-evident here.
Dix’s Berlin was apparently a place where nothing was censored -- everything was publicly permitted, even more than in Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris -- and nothing seriously mattered. Berlin was indeed famous for its cabarets, where everything was mocked. (One of the first things Hitler did was to close them, which helps explain the humorless Germany he created.) It was in principle the first completely “anything goes” promiscuous society and space for promiscuous art: Berlin after Germany’s defeat in World War I and before Hitler’s rise to power was a permissive place where modern creativity came into its promiscuous own, suggesting that it was a symptom of modern society’s permissiveness. Nothing was forbidden -- not homosexuality or prostitution nor any “abnormal” point of view or political extreme -- nothing was anomalous, because everything was anomalous: society as a whole had become crazy, so why shouldn’t its members be crazy, whether for money or sex or crime? His rendering of the female victims of sex murder crimes are famous, but for him war is the greatest crime, and his prostitutes are criminals, and many of them are sadists, as Dream of The Female Sadist I and II and Dedicated to Sadists, all 1922, strongly suggests. Many of his bourgeois look like furtive criminals in the making. One wonders if Dix believed in Lombroso’s theory of criminal types, an application of Lavater’s theory that physiognomy bespeaks psychology.
Dix depicted a Germany that had been economically and socially broken on the rack of World War I -- a country that seemed perpetually at risk of coming apart and collapsing, a Germany forced back and imploding on itself because it had lost credibility and respect, and had been labeled barbarian, as it was in antiquity. And perhaps above all, as the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut emphasizes in his discussion of the anger, demoralization, resentment, and violence epidemic in Weimar Germany (and in Dix’s work), because of the world’s lack of empathy for it (and the down and out -- losers -- in general). Paradoxically, this failure of empathy is reflected in Dix’s lack of empathy for his bourgeois sitters -- just as the bourgeois had no empathy for the proletariat, so the proletariat had no empathy for the bourgeois (neither understood the other’s existence and lifeworld very well) -- and, more unexpectedly, for the soldiers he served with and depicted, in death as well as in action, in his war pictures. Dix was the first significant activist/protest artist of the 20th century. His picture of the Trench (1920-23) was the featured work in an anti-war exhibition organized by a group called No More War. The work is presumed to have been destroyed during World War II, but some scholars think it was destroyed by the Nazis before the war, probably because it was regarded as “degenerate” and showed the disaster and horror of war -- the human wreckage it left in its wake, thus raising doubts about necessary it was, and suggesting that the love of war was love of death.
His prescient picture of Hitler as one of The Seven Deadly Sins (1933) -- a brilliantly on-target allegorical painting (also missing from the exhibition) -- is another important protest painting. One can read his “War” series as an extended, hard-hitting protest against the soldiers who willingly killed and went to their own deaths in the war. Dix’s own conflicted feelings about serving in the war seem self-evident in his Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1914) -- he is in effect a bloody murderer, as the fierce red color and dark, haunted face suggest: one wonders if its vehemence is informed and intensified by survivor’s guilt. Dix came back from the war to become its angry witness, while many of his comrades-in-arms did not, which left him with a residue of unconscious guilt, masked by his self-consciously fierce, gruesome face. Guilt seems hidden behind the gruesomeness of his prostitutes and his aggressive, even overtly hostile treatment of many of his bourgeois sitters.
When I visited Dix in 1959 at his home in Hemmenhofen-am-Bodensee -- far from Berlin and not far from the Swiss border, so that he could escape across it if the Nazis came for him -- he proudly told me that he had learned the techniques of the Old Masters: his pictures would last as long as theirs -- at least 500 years, he said. Along with Soutine and Jacob Epstein, among others, he turned to “museum art,” losing credibility -- a credibility he never had among the avant-gardists, and that social realism -- especially his kind of existential German social realism -- never had. Soutine is played down as a predecessor of de Kooning in Arnason’s textbook (early and current editions), and was sacrificed on the altar of purity by Greenberg, who finally found him too emotional for the good of art. Epstein is not even mentioned in the prestigious textbook, suggesting that not even his radically innovative Rock Drill, the first sculpture to incorporate a machine (a pneumatic drill) -- after World War I Epstein realized that the drill was a weapon, and took it away from the figure, in effect castrating him and symbolizing all the soldiers castrated by the war (among them Kirchner, as his famous self-portrait with his painting hand cut off suggests) -- is not even worthy of avant-garde mention. Three of Dix’s paintings -- the Trench, a work showing grotesquely crippled veterans playing cards, and a portrait owned by the Museum of Modern Art -- are reproduced in Arnason. There is no mention of his extraordinary “War” prints and nudes -- certainly not the sexy big-breasted one who serves as his muse in a 1924 self-portrait, nor the horrific prostitutes, nor the sex murder images, nor such allegories of life and death as Vanitas (Youth and Old Age) (1932). All three artists were déclassé because they rejected modernism.
Dix realized that sex and death would always be around, along with war and the human body -- the sites where their impact could be felt, and where they came together -- and that, in a sense, there is nothing more real than they are: the experience of sex and death would always give one a greater sense of reality -- and each would invoke the other, remind one of its unconscious presence in the other--than the experience of anything else. His soldiers and prostitutes were opposite sides of the same coin of visceral experience of death and sex -- both could be felt in the body, especially the body under stress, not in the abstract. He realized that they would always cry out for representation -- representation that would register their effect on the self -- while it was not clear that abstraction would always be around, nor that it was capable of adequately registering the effect -- always apocalyptic, if subliminally rather than explicitly -- of sex and death, whatever traces and hints of it they may leave in the material medium, which, after all, is a poor surrogate for the human body. For Dix, nowhere was the profound effect of sex and death on the body more clearly registered than in Old Master art, and nowhere was their reality more forcefully and subtly represented, and socially communicated through shared symbols. Dix rejected modernism, after assimilating it, and turned to the Old Masters for inspiration, just as Renoir did when he rejected Impressionism for Rubens -- rejected the pursuit of the passing moment, the transient, for the pursuit of the permanent, the unchanging archetype.
For Renoir and Rubens, it was the archetype of the eternal feminine in the symbolic form of a ripe, young female body. Art for them was a way to embody myth -- shown in the flesh, it was seen to be real. It was inevitable that in ruined Germany the eternal feminine would also become a ruin -- abused and worn down by history, as many of Dix’s weary, aging female bodies suggest. But the archetype of manliness remained intact in his self-portraits, however much his invalided veterans had lost their manliness -- the manliness they confirmed when they were whole and healthy and visited prostitutes, in defiance of the pathological war that unmanned them.
Regardless of his reputation among latter-day avant-gardists, Dix understood that Old Master realist art would last longer than New Master abstract art, for social reality would outlast all art -- it would always be there, while art might no longer be, having been completely assimilated by the entertainment business, which is why art had to memorialize reality to last, that is, to have a social future. Old Master art was harder to turn into entertainment than modern art, which often seemed like amateur theater, which is why Dix used Old Master art as a mold to contain the entertaining world of sex and suffering -- the world of the Berlin clubs and streets -- he knew firsthand. His art is a brilliant dialectical union of calm and collected -- sane -- Old Master art and violent and and chaotic -- insane -- modern reality.
Avant-garde art ages rapidly, while Old Master art is ageless. Old Master art shows that content matters as much as form. Dix was what Travis English calls a radical traditionalist, that is, an artist who realized that traditional art would always be more radical, durable, and consequential than avant-garde art, which often seemed flimsy and accidentally made, and thus had no lasting human value let alone lasting aesthetic appeal. It only had credibility and value as part of the historical record, that is, as period art and a symptom of the destructiveness of the modern Zeitgeist, whatever its technological prowess, evident in its war machines, including Dix’s machine gun.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.