Thursday, 25 September 2014

How to explain

I have completed my Summer assignment at the Canadian War Museum as Interpreter guide for the painting exhibit ''Transformations'' paintings of the Canadian A.Y.Jackson and German Realist Painter Otto Dix. Two interesting men and certainly famous painters though in the final analysis I find Otto Dix far more interesting as a painter than Jackson who was essentially a landscape artist.

In the course of the tour of the exhibit I presented the basic differences between the two men, they were in fact very different men not only by temperament but also in their up-bringing and in the life they led.
Otto Dix (1891-1969)

With Otto Dix comes the various art movements he worked in and associated with, Futurism, Cubism, Dadaist movement, Realism, etc... Dix modelled his life on the Philosoply of Friedrich Nietzsche who is seen as the philosopher whose theories influenced much of the XXth Century and the way we live. He was the main proponent of Existentialism. Now the problem for me was to try to explain very briefly Nietzsche as an influence in the life of Dix and his paintings. How do you do this with a public who has very minimal knowledge of painting, who has never heard of this painter and who does not know who Nietzsche is. The easy way out would have been to skip it all together but the explaining notes alluded to it, so you need to maybe give some context to it all.

The other problem is that the Second World War is a very large elephant in our collective memory and unfortunately our view of that war and the events surrounding it is very distorted and has been simplified into a lot of nonsense. So here I am trying to explain that the painters Jackson and Dix saw action during the First World War (1914-1918) which has no relation to events between 1933-1945 and their world was transformed by the Great War and no I am not talking of Nazis and Jews.

In fact one of the questions that came back constantly was at the very beginning of the tour when people would ask, So what did Dix do during the Nazi era? Was he a Jew? Did he leave Germany? How come he survived did he collaborate with the Nazis? I constantly had to remind my dear public that first Dix was born near Dresden in Germany in 1891 and we are looking first at the paintings of his early life and his war experience during the period 1914-18 as a very young man.  In most cases I could clearly see that my public was lost or at least disappointed, they could not pigeon hole Dix into the bad German or bad Nazi mode. It has been 100 years and that is a very long time ago for most people.

One person insisted that he had to be an evil man because he did not get on the soap box to denounce Hitler in 1914 and leave Germany pronto.  Never mind the fact that Hitler an Austrian, was not a political figure in 1914 and was just an anonymous conscript like millions of others. I did say that Otto Dix had a difficult character, was a social climber and became famous and infamous because of his high jinks in the art world in Germany.

On the other hand A.Y.Jackson was seen as the good guy simply because his name is recognisable with the Canadian Group of 7 Painters. Beyond that most people did not know a Jackson from a Renoir. Most cannot identify a Group of 7 painting from any other landscape painting. If truth be told only the most famous paintings, those that are endlessly reproduced are known by sight. The Group of 7 contrary to popular mythology was also short lived, they were active only between 1919 and 1932. Some members of the public thought that they were still painting as a group in the 1970's when in fact most of them were long dead. The Group disbanded because the Art critics got tired of their landscapes.

Many women were asking about another Canadian Painter Emily Carr who did not figure in the exhibit since she did not take part in the Great War, was not a Canadian War Artist and the exhibit was not about her to begin with, for some reason I always got the impression that my female public was disappointed she had not been included as if this was another ''equity issue'' we are so fond of here in Canada.

The automatic association the viewing public made with the Group of 7 and A.Y.Jackson was also maddening. It was as if they believed that from birth Jackson was in the Group of 7 as a painter. However almost no one could name another painter in that group, it seems that when it comes to Canadian painting if you do not mention the Group of 7 there is no Canadian painting period.
A rather sad commentary on general knowledge of Canadian Art and artists.

So there I am back in the early years part of the exhibit trying to give a concise explanation about Nietzschean philosophy. I would usually say this: Nietzsche rejected Traditional Christian values, he argued that the ideal human the Übermensch would  be able to channel his passions creatively instead of suppressing them.  He also reasoned that Christianity's emphasis on the afterlife makes its believers less able to deal with earthly life.  Dix certainly followed Nietzsche in his life and in the way he perceived himself in the art world.

In some cases, not all, depending on my audience, I would also explain the fascination Dix had with violence and sexual violence done to women, the case of Jack the ripper was fresh in European minds at the time and the recurring theme in his early works of the idea of regeneration, that the earth is associated with motherhood and fecundity, that trenches were men hid and fought from was similar to a woman's genitalia. This was presented in the notes and I heard more than one visitor scoff at the program notes as inventions by the Curator. In fact the Curator, a knowledgeable expert, was paraphrasing Dix himself who explained why he painted as he did.

In one of Dix's war paintings he paints red poppies on top of the trench, as an erotic flowers and not a flower of remembrance as we in Canada think of them. Certainly between 1919-1933 which was Dix's most prolific period he was in open revolt against the German War profiteers and German Bourgeois society denouncing its hypocrisy in the face of social upheaval and economic uncertainty. Dix late in his life said: I paint for the man in the street, I hope he likes what I do but I do not know.

Many of the visitors at the exhibition preferred Jackson who is much easier to assimilate and whose paintings did not challenge pre-conceived ideas of war and sacrifice. In this sense even British painter Paul Nash who hated the war and those in charge of it, is far darker and Nihilistic than Jackson who simply refused to show in his war art the horror of the battlefield, unlike other Canadian artists like Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley. No Jackson was not the controversial one, in fact after the Group of 7 disbands in 1932, he will transform himself into the teacher, writer and government propagandist, his paintings will be reproduced into thousands of copies plastered in every waiting room of the nation, he will sit on Government Commissions choosing soldiers who will paint specifically requested scenes of the Second World War (1939-1945).

If during the First World War the Canadian Government of Sir Robert Borden did not care for an archive of Canadian War Art, Canadians can say a large thank you to Max Aitken Lord Beaverbrook for giving us one,  during the second world conflict the situation was very different now propaganda or Art at the Service of War was a powerful tool and continues to this day. In the latest conflict, the longest in Canadian history the 12 year Afghanistan war in which we were involved, the Harper Regime rather clumsily tried to tell the artists what to paint.

Jackson will continue to sit on various government commissions, one will be the Commission on the New Canadian Flag of 1965.  In his final years he will paint at the McMichael studio in Kleinburg Ontario North of Toronto, nothing too challenging for the eyes just more of the same.

After 1945 for both Dix and Jackson it was clearly the case of Fame stifling Genius, they were famous but no one cared much for their painting style. Grand old men of an era most people wanted to forget and today we have forgotten about the war,  but Dix is still present and his paintings are questions for us to answer in this very troubled world we live in. To me he is still fresh and relevant.

In the late 1920's Dix was interviewed and he explained that as a soldier he wanted to feel what it was like to fear death when it is in front of you on the battlefield and the lust he felt in plunging his bayonet into another man in battle. Though this statement is shocking Dix is nonetheless brutally honest, he became infamous for his brutal honesty. Whereas Jackson would say to friends that he did not want to show the horror of war in his paintings, he preferred leaving it to the viewer to figure out what they were looking at, to me his so called reserve is dishonest, very middle-class and so Canadian, don't rock the boat approach.

Art exist so that we will not die from the Truth!  F. Nietzsche.


  1. I'm sure people learned a lot from your guided talks at the exhibit. I know I have from these posts based on them! Thanks!

  2. You must have great patience to put up with the ignorance and the belligerence or others. I hope you are a shining star of education and reason - and someone listens to you.

    1. I simply present the facts if they wish to listen fine if not it's fine too. I just love the art and am happy doing this work, I think it is something I have wanted to do for a very long time.

    2. You like what you do: this makes you a very fortunate man.

    3. yes I know and I have to pinch myself sometimes.

  3. Thanks for this post. I had heard of Dix and Jackson but never knew much about them.