(This short story is about the time in primary school in Port Moresby in the early 70's when two friends and I would play in the tunnel that ran beneath the main building of the newly built University of Papua New Guinea.)
Standing on the cool packed earth at the entrance of the tunnel, the boys, the three of them, turned and looked into the darkness. It was a bright dry season afternoon and if they had taken two steps backwards they would have once again been bathed in the clear sharp tropical light.
He couldn't remember how or when they had first discovered the tunnel but now it was a part of their every afternoon. He looked down at his bare feet and then at the storm water drain that disappeared into the darkness. Outside, above them, he imagined the shaded space of the university's main building, with its roof high above the great amphitheater,a reflection in the library windows, all cooled by a steady breeze. He imagined as well students walking through the space and the sound of their footsteps echoing off the smooth cement surfaces.
He looked into the tunnel and felt a thrill at the cool quiet dark space, with its unexplored corners, its muffled drips and dankness. I. and P. had already plunged in, following the storm water drain, feeling their way along the wall. His eyes adjusted to the dark. The tunnel’s first turn was to the left, at ninety degrees. It was here he felt that the tunnel truly began. From this point the darkness became thicker, the air cooler still.
As always the tunnel was completely theirs. They never expected to meet anyone and they never did. Not once in all the hours they spent there, after school or on the weekend, did they meet a single other soul. It was their tunnel, their domain, their Aladdin’s cave.
In a distant corner water dripped. A right turn formed a corner in the drain which he enjoyed stepping over. Next came the longest stretch of tunnel and, as with every section, it evoked a particular feeling in him. The entrance lifted his spirits and made his heart jump. The long straight line of this part was pure adventure, high drama, and he felt like he was in a movie, one that was fifty times better than anything he had seen at the Skylight Drive Inn or at Wards Cinema. Those movies gave him something, certainly, but not this, not the singular uniqueness of this. At the end of this part they needed to crouch to get under the squared structure of air conditioning duct. On the other side the ceiling was lower, the space more intimate. Here they sat in the dusty soil leaning against the brick walls which formed an alcove.
He felt the bricks hard against his back. Over to his left he could see the rectangle of light formed by the frame of the door that he knew opened onto a small basement tutorial room. One day they entered the tunnel through this door after having walked down the stairs near the library, then along a short corridor.
He pushed some dirt with his toes. He could just make out the shapes of I. and P. Listening carefully to catch any sound he was surprised by how many he could hear. He heard voices, muffled, from the room nearby and the drip of water, as well as the hum and rattle of the air conditioning unit for the main lecture theatre above where they sat. One day a kid got pushed against the dark glass doors of the theatre, smashing its pane and sending out great shards of glass. There was lots of blood and glass everywhere. After that, every time he passed the door, he looked at the stain of the kid’s blood on the cement floor. There was the sound, faraway, as though from a distant planet, of an electric drill.
They stood and stepped back onto the cool path. This was the last part of the tunnel and it was narrow and already hinting at the day outside. The dripping water was closer and the wall damp and mossy. They stepped out into the day. It was so bright they needed to squint and cover their eyes. The afternoon had lost none of its intensity. Bougainvillea hung from the silver grey rock wall and in the car park widescreens caught the sun and multiplied it.
Their bikes were where they had left them leaning against the stone wall of the library. Soon they were pedaling away from the university along the back road, a strip of asphalt cutting through the bush. He felt the breeze on his face and chest. His shirt was open, as were his friends’, and as they pedaled, they shouted across the space between each other. The land was flat and they were surrounded on all sides by high kunai grass. If sitting in the tunnel had made him feel safe and calm this gave him a sense of freedom and exhilaration. He whooped and laughed and pushed harder on the pedals so as to overtake his friends.
‘Ha ha ha!’ he shouted, as he stood, pedaling hard, gripping the handle bars and taking full control of the bike. Suddenly the day felt still, lulled by the heat and light. Alive but sleepy, their movements apparently providing the only activity in an over lit landscape, like hyperkinetic cartoon figures rushing across a flat background image. Of course the stillness was an illusion and the boys fed off the bush’s pulsating energy and the life that filled every particle of matter.
He thrilled at the cool breeze, created by the forward movement of the bicycle, which touched the film of sweat on his body. He saw I. and P. closing the distance between him and them, so he pushed harder, as hard as he could, and by the time he started to climb the hill to the back blocks of the university housing his friends were far behind him.
He stopped and placed one foot on the hot surface of the road, while his hands continued to grip the handlebars. As he balanced there on the road, in the bush, at the top of the hill, he felt he was part of a great tableau. He turned his head slowly towards his friends and like the final scene in a movie in the movie of his life he saw his friends figures in a khaki landscape smiling, waving and pushing their bikes up the hill towards him.
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.