The disorder and early sorrow witnessed by Thomas Mann in the early 1920s was visited upon what he called the upper middle class. Nothing would ever be the same for them after the debacle of the First World War. He depicted the characters in his 1920s stories with an edge of regret; an empathy probably born of his own class status brutally assaulted by postwar circumstances. Yet, since he was indisputably a great artist, his portraits were always nuanced.
The same cannot be said for the cold observations of the painter Otto Dix, whose four years of savage trench warfare were to form his worldview definitively. Or so we must assume. When William Carlos Williams told us that there were no ideas but in things, we smiled and well understood the sources of his manifesto. But it was difficult to dredge up a smile at the consistent “objectivity” proffered by Otto Dix. When the thinker Carl Einstein addressed Dix’s work in 1923, he said: “Dix gives this era—which is only a caricature of one—a resolute and technically sound kick in its swollen belly.” Dix’s portrait gallery on Weimar Republic types never wavers in its “objectivity,” which is to say the viewpoint that he claimed he had established. Not only did Dix take credit for naming a tendency the New Objectivity, but he wasted few words defending his stance. In one of his few statements, published in 1927, he declared, “The object is primary.” The “innovation area” lies, he said, in “the broadening of the subject area.” For him, “the object is primary and the form is shaped by the object.” What is clear throughout his painting life is that the human beings he depicted were, to him, objects—things to be handled with the same painstaking verism he would employ when depicting a vase or a tin cup.
The comprehensive exhibition of Dix’s work between the two wars at the Neue Galerie invited an approach based on Hippolyte Taine’s theory of race, moment, milieu, and urges art critics and historians to ever-new name tagging. The way they have chopped up their narratives in to ever-smaller segments may well impede viewers of this first exhibition in a museum in the United States of a major 20th century artist. Is this post-Expressionist, new objectivism, or Weimar specific? Or is it the last chapter in German art history that encompasses Gothic and Baroque painters?
Within two years of founding the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. presented an exhibition of contemporary German painting in which Dix was particularly well represented. Still largely untold is the story of how Barr’s own views were developed, and the story of the German art dealer and connoisseur, J.B. Neumann, who early recognized Dix’s power, and exhibited his paintings and prints both in Germany, and during the 1930s in his New York gallery, “The New Art Circle.” Neumann very adroitly engaged Barr to look behind jazz-age clichés, and to tease out lines of development from obscure historical sources. He also educated the general public in an endearing series of publications titled “The Art Lover.”
In the current exhibition, Dix comes across as a product of his formative experiences in the trenches coupled with an inherently violent temperament. He pictures himself as a stiff and unyielding misanthrope. He seems a stranger to emotions such as affection or sorrow, but familiar with bitter disdain. I can remember as a child of nine being both fascinated and repelled by the portrait of the laryngologist Dr. Mayer-Hermann, and I admit to the same reaction all these years later. Dix’s absolute precision with the doctor’s instruments is matched by an absolute precision in the contours of the doctor’s fleshy face and sullen expression. In other portraits of the mid-to-late 20s, Dix tended to stylize the rendition of his sitter’s eyes, and sometimes exaggerate hand gestures, but seldom did his harsh stare discern an inner condition. That, he might have said, was none of his business.
This exhibition offers another aspect of Dix’s oeuvre in the large selection of graphic work. His extensive series of prints and drawings, particularly those of trench warfare, are undeniably among his most valuable contributions to art history, drawing upon a venerable tradition to produce a profound expression of agony. He seems to have neglected no aspect of the horrors he witnessed, and had the stomach to record them in great detail. Perhaps his intrepid spirit—his ability to face things with, as he said, indifference—elicits admiration, but it also seemed able to cope with and adapt to Nazi demands, as the retardataire paintings of the later 30s attest. Dix’s reading of Nietzsche, whom he greatly admired, is, I suspect, far closer to that of the National Socialists than it is to ours today.