Otto Dix: The Evil Eye.
(or “The Claw-Like Hand”.)
K20 Grabbeplatz, Düsseldorf
Feb.11 – May 28, 2017
There are two things to keep in mind when thinking about Otto Dix. The first is that as a machine gunner and commander of a machine gun unit on the Western and Eastern Fronts, he saw some of the worst fighting of World War One. The second is that he was a strikingly handsome dandy who was good enough a dancer to contemplate taking part in dance competitions to earn extra money. He loved Jazz and the different dance styles of the period. If we look at photographs and self-portraits of the artist we can see these two sides of his personality: The warrior and the artist.
His wife Martha said of their first meeting: “I imagined a young man with blond hair and full of pimples…He did truly have blond hair and above all he was very spirited. It turned out he could dance incredibly well.” (Otto Dix: The Evil Eye. 2017, p36).
Otto Dix arrived in Düsseldorf in 1922 and stayed until 1925. His time in Düsseldorf was to be the making of him personally and professionally. This fine exhibition does a wonderful job in capturing how it all came together for him in this town. It was here that he met Frau Ey who owned a bakery and art gallery and was a great supporter of young artists. It was also where he met Martha Koch, who would become his wife.
Martha was married at the time to Dr Hans Koch who had commissioned Dix to paint his portrait. The couple had two children.Dix and Martha began an affair. It is refreshing to learn that there was little drama among the participants in the affair and Dr Koch was involved with someone else. It was a scandal, but for Dix, who had seen the carnage of war, it seems to have been water off a duck’s back. By all accounts he was a good husband and father.
The exhibition is divided into two main spaces. On the left of the main entrance is a darkened area with etchings, drawings and watercolours on paper from 1923-1925 where Dix chronicled his four years in the trenches of World War One. Some are clinically detailed examinations of soldier’s wounds and the carnage of battlefields. Others are more impressionistic, landscapes of desolation. His aim in doing these pieces was to work through the trauma of the war. He said: “I wanted to be rid of it!” (ibid p186)
There are the also almost cartoon-like works, in the case of “Lens Being Bombed.”(1924) where we see terrified civilians running from a swooping airplane. And the shocking mixed media pieces such as “War Wounded.” (1924) where the anatomical detail of the wound is rendered in watercolour while the soldier is drawn in pencil.
At the end of this section is a reproduction of the painting he made, “The Trench.”(1923) recording in epic style the totality of the devastation of war. It caused a scandal when it was first exhibited and has since been lost.
The second area of the exhibition contains all his other major works from this period. Here we have, among others, the commissioned works where he casts a clinical but kindly eye on his benefactors alongside less flattering works of subjects brave enough to sit for a portrait by Dix. These paintings were made using the glazing techniques of the old masters in an unflinching realist style.
In pride of place midway along the main corridor and facing the viewer is Dix's great masterpiece “The Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber.”(1925). One of the great joys of this exhibition was seeing this painting and imagining the energy of those years of the Weimar Republic. Berber becomes a symbol of both the time and the generation. A classically trained dancer and choreographer, she was also a cocaine addict and alcoholic. She had affairs with both men and women, often performed naked and appeared in soft core pornographic films. The sensual snake-like figure of Berger fills the canvas clad in crimson fabric. As with so many of Dix’s paintings Berber’s claw-like hands are highlighted. Her face is pale and haggard and she stares off into the distance as though not minding our gaze. The red around her nostrils hints at her cocaine addiction. The contours of her body can be clearly seen beneath the clinging fabric. This is a portrait of a dancer by a fellow dancer and captures her physicality. Red, yellow and crimson dominate the palette as though her existence, and the times in which she lived, were hellish. She died young.
The other perfectly positioned portrait in the exhibition is that of Dix's great benefactor, Frau Ey. In “Portrait of the Art Dealer Johanna Ey.”(1924) Frau Ey doesn’t get off lightly as Dix captures in detail her physical flaws. However, there is a nobility about her, with her tiara and the theatrical curtain in the background.
Then there are the commissions. One can almost sense Dix holding back, just dying to give them the famous Dix claw-like hand. In these portraits such as “Portrait of Industrialist Dr Julius Hesse with a Paint Sample.”(1926) we see the subject surrounded by the tools of his trade.
And what of the mad-crazy-sex-crime-sailors-soldiers-prostitutes-in-brothels drawings and watercolours on paper? Sex, crime, love, war. Dix did not shy away from showing the trauma and madness he and the rest of the population suffered from the war, nor the infinite range possibilities of human sexuality and violence. As he said in 1966: “I am a visual person and not a philosopher. That is why I am constantly taking stock in my pictures. I show what is really happening and what has to be said in the name of the truth.” (Otto Dix: The Evil Eye Booklet. 2017)
And then at the other end of the scale is the series of twelve watercolour paintings on paper never before exhibited of tales from the bible and classical literature which he did for his children. These delightful paintings are full of life, love and colour. With watercolours he was able to be fast and free unlike his oils on canvas which required meticulous application of layers of glaze.
And next to this series, and a fine example of the choices the curators made in this exhibition, is a small oil portrait of Martha’s children, ”Children’s Portrait of Hanali and Muggeli.”(1922). This is a delightful painting, with its colours and the sweet expressions on the children’s faces, as well as the tiny hand reaching out of the painting surface and onto the frame.
And finally his portrait of Martha wearing a fur and hat, “Portrait of Frau Martha Dix.’(1923). It could be a matching piece to the “Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber” in the choice of palette. Here the red/crimson is used on the hat which casts a light shadow over Martha’s face. The paleness of her face seems to express good grooming rather than decrepitude. One of her hands is encased in a white glove and the other is flesh coloured and for a Dix hand, relatively normal looking. She is surrounded by the soft darkness of the background and the classically rendered surface of the fur that falls off her shoulder. It is a portrait of love and desire.
As I think about the exhibition some other pieces spring to mind: “The Portrait of the Actor Heinrich George.” (1932); “The Widow.” (1922); “Train Station Restaurant in Glauchau.”(1924) and its hint of surrealism; “Red-Haired Woman (Portrait of a Lady).” (1931) with her sad face.
The exhibition did Otto Dix proud. For me it was a must-see event and I am grateful that I had the chance to see it several times. The extra visits helped me to get my head around most of the important pieces and to grasp the ambition of Dix’s project and his achievement. And in that strange way art and the unconscious work, I feel I now have a better understanding of the devastating impact of World War One and the turbulent years of the Weimar Republic, having seen them through Dix’s eyes.
I am an Australian artist living in Düsseldorf, Germany.