With its well-appointed beaux-arts interiors and genteel domesticity, the Neue Galerie seemed a somewhat strange setting for the first Otto Dix retrospective in the US. Of course, a few tortured Oskar Kokoschka paintings peek out amidst the Secessionist furniture in the museum’s adjacent galleries, while some Egon Schiele canvases give the lie to the fastidious, ticking sterility of a clock by Adolf Loos. But the savage mordancy of Dix’s painting seemed like it might issue an unending, proverbial sneer in these surrounds.
Then again, Dix was no stranger to bourgeois life; he made its underbelly the stuff of a career. To wit, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2006–7 survey of Weimar portraiture, in which Dix featured prominently, was titled ‘Glitter and Doom’. The doom of Dix’s vision is perhaps most consistently and emphatically rendered in his 1924 series ‘Der Krieg’ (War), on display in its grisly – and at times wryly humorous – entirety, in a separate, darkened room on the museum’s second floor. A series of 50 etchings, it draws upon his experience as an officer in the German army, where he manned a machine gun from the trenches; gas masks, worm-eaten skulls, dive-bombing planes scattering terrified civilians. The whole of the 20th century is already here, as both record and prolepsis. (Much of the 19th is here too – Dix learned his lessons from Francisco Goya and Max Klinger.) The pencil and watercolour portrait, War Wounded (1922), figures a young, bright-eyed man, the right side of whose face has been colonized by the lewd, gruesome flowering of a lesion. I couldn’t help but fast-forward to the existential smears of Francis Bacon’s anatomies, and how obscenely metaphorical they seem in the wake of Dix’s shattered, poker-faced precedents. Dix’s 1920 watercolour of a human brain betrayed all the realist curiosity of a study by Albrecht Dürer or Adolph von Menzel. Not that Dix limited himself to the empiricism of war and its violence. Remembering the Halls of Mirrors in Brussels (1920), in which a military officer fondles the breast of an obliging nude woman seated on his lap, combines a play of fractured, Cubist-like spaces with one of the artist’s pet topics. Indeed, for Dix, prostitution in Weimar formed another side of the same decadent coin as the prevalence of wounded veterans: individuals reduced to objects, commodities.
For all his proximity to the Berlin Dadaists – with whom he exhibited his searing War Cripples (1920) – Dix remained a painter’s painter. He briefly explored the object-ness of his own art – in the collage-like faceting of his Hall of Mirrors and in the actual collages, Matchbook Seller and Skat Player (both 1920). Dix’s heart remained, however, in the craft of painting, particularly its Northern Renaissance history. Yet just as that craft encompassed everything from Jan van Eyck to Quentin Massys, so too do Dix’s veristic images betray a range of approaches to ‘the real’. The detailed corpulence of Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber (1925) shares little with the flat, matte rigidity of The Businessman Max Roesberg (1922). If his Lady with Mink and Veil (1920) acknowledges its awkwardness as a painting, the meticulous likeness rendered in Reclining Woman on Leopard Skin (1927) strains to defy its medium. 1924 – a watershed year in Dix’s production – witnessed a gamut of approaches to the body which refuse to settle into one coherent style.
The exhibition’s various rubrics made it difficult, however, to get a sense of how Dix’s development – personal, professional, political – informed the range of his realism. Sections seemed arbitrary and unhelpful. How did Dix’s 1938 landscapes end up in the ‘Self-Portraits’ room? The gallery titled ‘The Weimar Years’ contained not the painter’s most famous portraits (also painted under Weimar) but a different range of canvases entirely. To be sure, the anti-climax of Dix’s ill-fated career makes it somewhat harder to reckon than of other artists like George Grosz or Max Beckmann. His internal exile in Germany resulted in a strange late output; stripped of his post in Dresden after the Nazis’ rise to power, he was forbidden to paint. If some of his 1938 landscapes seem benign and even saccharine, his 1939 St. Christopher – in the same gallery – is a consummation of kitsch. Yet the absence of searing works such as Flanders (1934) and The Seven Deadly Sins (1933) would lead one to believe that Dix simply gave up the ghost after 1933, when this is not the case.
The exhibition is worth seeing for the singular achievements of its individual objects. The parallels between Dix’s Weimar decadence and certain tendencies in another crumbling empire, closer to home, are hard to miss. You might hear them, even above the gratuitous crooning of cabaret music wafting from the galleries’ upper-room speakers.