This show blew my mind. It's the first major US museum show for Dix, who is considered the premier portrait artist of the Weimar republic. At the Neue through August 30.
First, you enter a dark room hung with a few watercolors of soldiers with horrible facial wounds and the 50 etchings in the series called "War." Dix completed these works after returning from a tour of duty as a machine-gunner in WW1. Apparently, the soldiers who sustained terrible facial wounds from grenades were often concealed in military hospitals to avoid the bad PR attendant on their return to civilian life. Dix renders these wounds like someone else might paint flowers or vaginas. They are mesmerizing, oddly beautiful.
Reminded me of Kafka's "Country Doctor," who examines a young patient and finds:
On his right side, in the region of the hip, a wound the size of the palm of one’s hand has opened up. Rose coloured, in many different shadings, dark in the depths, brighter on the edges, delicately grained, with uneven patches of blood, open to the light like a mining pit. That’s what it looks like from a distance. Close up a complication is apparent. Who can look at that without whistling softly? Worms, as thick and long as my little finger, themselves rose coloured and also spattered with blood, are wriggling their white bodies with many limbs from their stronghold in the inner of the wound towards the light. Poor young man, there’s no helping you. I have found out your great wound. You are dying from this flower on your side. (tr by Ian Johnston)
If you just can't get enough of facial wounds in art, here's a fabulous blog post on the topic.
I sometimes have a hard time maintaining interest in a series of small, black and white prints. (Beckmann's very similar war series, on view at the Neue a few years ago, left me cold.) But over the course of these 50 prints, Dix kept varying the textures and styles, varying also the intimacy of the subject, from a decaying horse to a wide-angle shot of the trenches to a mother weeping over her baby's corpse. There is so much love and beauty in the way the grotesque is treated. It is not a simple anti-war piece. There's nothing simple about it, and Dix himself said he was neither for nor against war. He went to war so he could see for himself what was happening, and he made these prints because he had to get it out of him.
The last etching shows two skulls, positioned so that one skull seems to be whispering in the other skull's ear. A dead man telling other dead men what he saw.
If this dark downstairs room were the whole show, it would already be worth your fifteen bucks, but you haven't even seen Dix's best-known work yet! Climb upstairs and enter the golden age of the Weimar republic, when lipstick was red, boots were OTK, Jews were still sorta chillin, and life was a cabaret.
In Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, she talks about the way WW1 changed everything for everyone. She quotes Cristina Rosetti's "A Birthday":
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot
My heart is like an apple tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit
And she says that poets don't write like this anymore, with this magnificent happiness and self-delusion, which was "the way one felt sometimes, at a luncheon party, before the war." She asks, "When the guns fired in August 1914, did the faces of men and women show so plain in each other's eyes that romance was killed?"
There is romance in Dix's world, but it is always in bed with death. In Vanitas, a blooming young woman stands next to the skeletal figure of her own death/old age. The face of Youth manages to be both beautiful and also somehow overripe and narcissistic. Dix got so, so much into his faces. They glow with soul. And, as with so many of these Neue shows, you get a kind of communal portrait of a group of friends living and thinking through difficult times. These were people who took life and art seriously. It makes me want to take things more seriously, too.
But not too seriously...
Of course Dix's unconventional eroticism, critique of the military elite, and other nifty qualities put him out of favor with the Nazis. He was fired from his teaching position and retired to the country, where in later life he resorted more and more to the landscape in order to veil his social critiques. He was one of the few "degenerate artists" who never left Germany.
Perhaps what kept him was the sausage. Because the other great thing about the Neue Gallery is Cafe Sabarsky. Kurt Gutenbrunner does things right, including weisswurst with soft pretzel, wild mushroom spaetzle, espresso mit schlag, and a sideboard laden with pastry. Beautiful Austrian wines by the glass have almost as long a finish as Otto Dix. L'chaim!