Saturday, 5 July 2014

Sex, Power, War, Existentialism and one painter

For the last few months I have been working as a volunteer-interpret in the Summer Exhibit of Canadian War Art created by Lord Beaverbrook during the Great War 1914-1918.

Of the more than 400 Canadian paintings in the collection and numerous bronzes about the First World War, two exhibits have been put together. One is called Transformations and the other Witness, as the title indicate Witness is about Canadian soldiers at the Front who witnessed the war and left to posterity paintings and sketches of what they saw and experienced. The other exhibit Transformations is about two men who could not be more different one from the other, A.Y. Jackson and Otto Dix. Both painters and both soldiers during the war, one quickly became a War Artist in the employ of Lord Beaverbrook's program of the Canadian War Memorial Fund, the other a German soldier who fought for 4 long years as a machine gunner and painted to keep his mind off the horrors he witnessed every single day.

Copse in the evening, A.Y.Jackson, 1917

Dead Sentry, Otto Dix 

My dilemma if I can call it that is about how to present both men and draw comparison if possible on their differences and similarities. If A.Y. Jackson is fairly un-complicated, leading a quiet and long life painting landscape in a style that will not change much in 75 years. A man who went along with the Official Propaganda of Ottawa in Wars and in Peace, never rocking the boat, always accepting to be the agent of Officialdom, who became famous in his lifetime and immortal in the mind of Canadians, living in a stable and prosperous country. This is fairly easy to explain to visitors and it verges on the boring. Jackson's popularity ensures that you do not need to say much, visitors already have an opinion of the man, like most visitors remark, this is one of the Group of 7 Painters right? NO it's not the group of 7 yet, we are speaking of a time well before all that. In most cases people know the name but not the painter.

What I make a point of explaining is that this collection of Canadian War Art (1914-1918) and the team of Canadian painters hired and paid for by Lord Beaverbrook, allowed people like Jackson, Varley and Lismer to become famous and form after the Armistice in 1919 the Group of Seven. Without this idea by Beaverbrook we would not have an archive of Canada's war effort and this also gave a tremendous boost to the development of Canadian Art and painters.  Suddenly there was amongst Canadians this understanding that we also produced art, no need to look to Europe. Recognition came of a new exclusively Canadian School of Painting.

On the other hand Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix (1891-1969) is a very complex person, brutally honest to the point of embarrassment, with views and opinions and an ever changing painting style. Living through two World Wars, Nazi dictatorship and the Cold War, dying in 1969 a disillusion man thinking that Death was the only Victor in the end.

Victory of Death, Otto Dix

How to explain Dix to visitors, when visitors know so little about him and German history in general outside of the usual platitudes we have been fed for the last 70 to 100 years. Not to mention the philosophical aspects of his painting style taken from the writing of Friedrich Nietzche and early theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud on the mind and human behaviour.  How do you do this in a few minutes trying desperately not to confuse the audience and keep their attention. More than one visitor mentioned they had seen the movie ''The Monument men'' as if this was a testament to their knowledge or lack there of. The fact that many visitors are already thinking 1939-1945 Second World War, you must constantly bring them back to the fact that we are speaking of the Great War and not of events closer to them. Most have forgotten that there was a war between 1914-1918, there are no movies with Hollywood starlets to explain it all.

Otto Dix requires that you ask yourself questions, something the public is not always ready or willing to do, after all they come to the museum to be entertained not to reflect on life and its meaning or lack thereof.  Also the act of going to a museum for many is foreboding, it is not that people are not interested, no, but they do feel insecure about what they know and do not know. Many realize they do not know much about anything.

Melancholie, Otto Dix

Many of Dix paintings have a sexual and violent overtone, speak of regeneration and hope, of death and war. Existentialism plays a part in his work, it is not possible to look at a Dix painting and not think about the meaning of Existentialism. Dix sees himself as an acting, feeling, living human individual. As he said himself I paint for the common man not the well thinking bourgeois or the profiteers. His Existential Attitude comes from a sense of confusion, of disorientation in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world in which he lived and we lived in the XXth Century.

He will enter the First World War as an enthusiastic Patriot, defending the Great German Empire, but being a Machine gunner, having the ability of killing hundreds in a matter of a few minutes will quickly turn him into a fierce critic of a society and world gone mad, full of lies and cynicism. Dix will come to feel he is the tool of the powerful, the Capitalist, the War profiteers, seeing so many of his comrades killed or left to die in the mud, picked at by rats. So horrified he was by the spectacle of war that like many ordinary soldiers, he came to hate those in charge of the War. A feeling shared by British and Canadian Soldiers alike. Then returning home to a Germany in crisis, poverty everywhere, a society in crisis, he decides to denounce the hypocrisy he sees all around him. He will make powerful enemies in German Society.

Lust murder, Otto Dix a painting he offered to his wife Martha. This painting hanged in the family dining room of their home in Hemmenhofen am Bodensee.

Victims of Capitalism, Otto Dix, 1923.
Here we see a prostitute disfigured by venereal disease and a veteran with a wound. The message being that capitalism profits by using the bodies of others.

The wounded veteran, Otto Dix. 
Wounds from shrapnel in WW I were more devastating because the piece of metal were large, this type of wound was common.

A.Y. Jackson will paint landscapes of the war on the battlefields but as he wrote to friends, ''I will not show the horror of battle and the dead'', he did not want to, he explained that it was not up to him to explain the war, he was paid to paint it for a future archive. Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley had no such reserve, they will use their art to criticize often callous and remote Politicians in Ottawa and the General Staff in London. Their art work is so controversial that it is still in storage to this day at the Canadian War Museum.

Visitors also look for poppies that red flower weed that grows in fields everywhere in May and June. Jackson does not use them in his paintings, he paints red Maple Leafs. The visitors are looking for something comforting and easily recognizable in this exhibit. Many simply say, Oh they were so young, it is so sad, but they do not go beyond that in trying to understand the meaning of these paintings.

For Canadians the poppy is a symbol of remembrance but not for the rest of Europe with the exception of France and Britain. For the Germans the poppy is an erotic symbol and when Dix paints deep trenches with poppies growing on top what he really is painting is a woman's genitalia and the poppies are a sexual symbol of arousal. Now how do you explain that to the visitors who are asking. A delicate situation for sure, the image is one of war and death and here is sexual imagery.
Sex and Death, Power and Death, Re-birth the cycle of life, not an easy topic to broach with any museum visitor who thinks, oh I am going to see War action paintings. In fact I have noticed that most visitors will not look at the Dix paintings and concentrate on the more palatable A.Y. Jackson, maybe because he confirms what they know or have been told. Otto Dix said once, I did not paint war  pictures in order to prevent war, I would never have been so arrogant. I painted them to exorcise the experience of war. All art is about exorcism.

Flanders, Otto Dix

Throughout his life Dix will return to this imagery time and again, in his portraits he will emphasize the grotesque, the ugly in his subjects even when is subjects are known to have been very handsome. All in keeping with his rejection of the Conservatism Petit Bourgeois attitude found in Germany after 1919, the many failures of the Weimar Republic and also in opposition to National Socialism ideology who as of 1933 will put Germany again on a war path. His subjects male and female are depicted as wasted and pathetic, leading a self-destructive life full of random violence, an analogy to Germany at the time. But also Dix said, I paint the beautiful and the ugly because that is the reality of life, both are present in our world.

In the period 1919-1933, he will describe himself as Mack the Knife, the Character of the Three Penny Opera of Bertold Brecht. The world he paints is that of the prostitutes, brothels, cabaret, the Demi-monde of Berlin, though he is a celebrated artist, his paintings hang in all major museums, he is a professor at the Art Academy in Dresden and is married and has several children, Nelly, Ursus, Jan and a daughter by his mistress of 40 years, Katherina. Difficult to reconcile for visitors.

 Otto Dix and his wife and children Nelly and Ursus, 1927

Nelly Dix, daughter of the painter in 1940

Another question often asked by visitors is why did Dix remain in Germany after 1933, why did he not leave like so many did.  I do not have to defend his choices, though he chose internal exile in Germany and he went to live near Lake Constance near the border with Switzerland, first in Randegg Castle and then in a villa in Hemmenhofen, leading a self-effacing life in a small village. He had a family, small children, he had all his paintings stored in Germany and money, He knew that leaving the Nazi regime would have taken everything he had, he would have been destitute with a wife and kids in a foreign land, a terrible prospect, we can empathize, however sone visitors are very critical of his decision to stay in Germany. Today 80 years after the fact it is easy to judge the actions of people like Dix. His career as a painter was destroyed as of 1933 and after the war in 1946 he will not be able to re-start his career though he will be famous, his painting style no longer in fashion.
I believe that most people even when faced with imminent disaster are not able to simply walk away from everything and this is what Dix would have had to do.

Of his family I have discovered that his son Ursus moved with his English wife to 40 Julian street in Ottawa and became an art restored at the National Gallery of Canada, he died in 2002 while riding his bicycle struck by a car.  His youngest son Jan live still in Hemmenhofen and manages the house of his parents now a museum. Katherina is also alive and lives in an apartment in Germany full of her father's paintings. Grandson Geoffrey Dix, a medical doctor, works at the Heart Institute in Ottawa.

Artists should not try to improve or convert. They are too insignificant for that. They must only bear witness.   Otto Dix

Art is given to us to prevent us from dying from Truth. Friedrich Nietzche

If Life is a comedy for Otto Dix it was a Grotesque Farce or as he probably would say himself, Life is Life and Art is Art.
So I continue my search on how to approach this subject and finding a clear explanation to Dix without scaring the horses on the public square.

Otto Dix Self-Portrait with easel


  1. The Canadian War Museum should have paired Dix's paintings with Canadian ones of equal depth and insight. Maybe they should have dug some of those Lismers and Varleys out of storage.

    1. There are several factors at play here. Half the collection is at the National Gallery and the other half at the War Museum. Lending from one to the other is not easy. The choice of Jackson was based on the fact that both men spent the war a few meters away from each other and never met, not even after the war. I also think that the curator wanted a very sharp contrast between the two. There may be marketing ploy at play also. Group of 7 is a draw in Canada whereas Otto Dix is not as well known. Bringing in big crowds for exhibits is now more than ever very important for our National Museums since their funding has been cut by you know who.

  2. I enjoyed hearing about 'another Canadian painter". Most Yanks if they know of any Canadian painters only know of the lady who painted all the NW pacific scenes.

  3. You mean Emily Carr, am not crazy about her.

    1. I have enough expertise to know Pacific NW Native American art well enough to see all the blaring errors in her paintings on the subject. This is enough for me to dislike her work.

    2. She is largely seen in Canada as the feminist icon. She was not part of the Group of 7 painters (all male) But was a friend with them. Though today she is presented as an honorary member and many women see this as a slight. I think that Carr's stuff is representative of that time (1900-1940) There was none of the sensitivities we see today in Society about women and their role and life was more along traditional gender lines. As for her works she strongly believed in the dominance of nature over man. I also do not think she was particularly sensitive to native culture. We may need to take a more critical look at her work.