When Art Holds A Mirror Up To Society – Otto Dix

A few weeks ago, I visited the exhibition Otto Dix – The Evil Eye (Otto Dix – Der böse Blick) in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf (Germany) that presented the first monographic exhibition of Otto Dix. The exhibition focused on Dix’s creative years in Düsseldorf and offered a comprehensive view on how by looking beyond the “unappetising” appearance of many of Dix’s works we can discover many layers of meanings. In order to understand his artworks, however, we need to know who Dix was and what events in his life inspired many of his paintings and etchings.

Otto Dix (1891-1969) was a soldier in WWI (during which he served as machine gunner) where he saw and experienced the brute force that is war. Based on his experiences during and after the war, he created ruthless works that aimed to unmask society’s ugliest sides. Dix was convinced that if humans are capable of waging a barbarous war, art should show this side of society too and not be apologetic about it. Therefore, his aim was to create works that were brutally honest in order to draw attention to those that many in the Weimar society preferred to oversee, that is, the losers of the war.

The stylistic developments of the artist say a lot about his approach to art and the value that he saw in it: Dix turned away from expressionism, which to him felt like an “unrealistic” mode of expression, and instead, he began painting in the style of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) that offered him an apt way to depict his immediate contemporary reality. This style, as its name suggests, is characterised by an unsentimental view of the objective world. It emerged in Germany during the 1920s as a reaction to expressionism that, to many artists, such as Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann, felt too abstract and idealistic. In contrast, the New Objectivity offered, especially in portrait painting, a satirical and caustic mode of expression that captured the many faces of Weimar society. The exhibition highlighted precisely this aspect of Dix’s portrait paintings and his fondness for satirical exaggeration.

“The Expressionists made their fair share art. We want to see things completely naked, clear, almost without art. I invented the New Objectivity.” (Dix, 1965)

As Dix’s art looked critically at socio-political developments and aimed to hold a mirror up to society, his work was not appreciated by everybody. Soon enough his works were considered to be against the rising ideology and nationalist ideas, which ultimately led to the fatal events of 1933, and were later shown in the exhibition “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst) in Munich in 1937. There, critical works, as those by Dix, were put on display and declared to be “an insult to German feeling”.

Today, Dix’s entire oeuvre (and that of many of his contemporaries) continues to be relevant because, like nothing else, his etchings and paintings confront us, in their unique and brutally honest manner, with the consequences of war. Exhibitions like Otto Dix – The Evil Eye contribute to our awareness and understanding of the past and the present and are definitely worth exploring!


Exhibition Tips: 

The monographic exhibition “Otto Dix – The Evil Eye” will be shown at Tate Liverpool as part of the exhibition Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 in which Otto Dix’ work is presented next to the works of photographer August Sander (1876-1964). In painting and photography, these artists ruthlessly made the many faces of German society between the two World Wars visible. On display from 23 June 2017 until 15 October 2017.

Another relevant exhibition on Degenerate Art,  where some of Otto Dix’ works will be shown, is soon to be seen in the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, from 14 July 2017 until 3 June 2018.


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