Rouge Cabaret: The Terrifying and Beautiful World of Otto Dix has one more month to go at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts. This exhibition, which was on display in a different form in New York last spring, is the first North American retrospective of Otto Dix (1891-1969), an artist some consider the pre-eminent painter of Weimar Germany. If you visit the exhibition, however, brace yourself: "Terrifying" is no overstatement.
The exhibition moves chronologically through different phases of Dix's work—drawings and etchings of the war, paintings of the dark side of city life in Weimar Germany, portraits and finally landscapes. Don't let Der Krieg, a series of prints on display at the beginning of the exhibition, drain you completely. Der Krieg is made up of gruesome etchings made by Dix during World War I and just following it: disfigured landscapes, craters from shelling, bodies rotting in trenches. Often, the only light, blinding and white, seems to come from a momentary flash of artillery. Many etchings are simply overtaken by a senseless blackness.
Some of the series' war-ravaged landscapes almost have a cold beauty. But those that depict human carnage are awful. Worms eat through the eye sockets of dead soldiers; twisted, rotting corpses lie with missing limbs. A few prints show soldiers finding respite from life in the trenches, pitifully, drinking until they vomit or seeking joyless comfort in shadowy brothels.
When a laughing three-year-old girl came running into the room ahead of her parents and made a beeline for the Der Krieg prints, I wondered briefly if I should block her, to help her avoid possible weeks of nightmares. But the series is a good introduction to Dix's power. It reveals an eerily fearless and talented artist, experimenting at will.
In the aftermath of the Der Krieg series (which is, after all, just one part of the exhibition), The Terrifying and Beautiful World of Otto Dix becomes much more colourful. Dix fixes his eye on bohemians, prostitutes, artists and sailors in brothels, salons and cafés. His portraits bring to life the world of Weimar Germany, in its staggering decadence, and one after another the paintings here are absorbing and strange.
Accompanying the artwork are notes and commentary collected by curator Olaf Peters, from Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. There are entertaining quotations from Dix, who mixes bluster with insight ("I don't have the intention of revealing to astonished bourgeois and contemporaries the depths and abyss within my soul. Those who have eyes to see, look!"). At times, the curator suggests a softer side of Dix, nudging him towards the humanistic. A caption on one wall by the Der Krieg series, for instance, declares Dix to be "one of the most eloquent anti-war artists of his century."
But the notion that Dix had a humane moral outlook on war and violence might be a little skewed. Dix was born to working-class parents in Germany; he studied art in Dresden, and became fascinated with philosophy, especially Nietzsche's (which some might construe as a warning sign). When World War I began, Dix was not one to sit on the sidelines. He later wrote, "The war was a horrible thing, though it was something powerful all the same. I certainly didn't want to miss it." (This and several other quotations, and the idea that Dix is an excellent if rather unlikable artist, are taken from Peter Schjeldahl's wonderful article on Dix from the March 22 issue of the New Yorker.)
The Der Krieg series doesn't make war attractive, but it also doesn't condemn war. Looking at the prints, it's hard to avoid feeling that to some extent Dix savours the carnage, for the aesthetic material it provides. "War was a terrible thing but nevertheless something powerful," he said. "I definitely could not neglect that! You have to see people in this untamed state to know anything about them." He's also said to have described to a friend, with relish, the pleasure of bayoneting an enemy soldier. He might well have recoiled from being called an "anti-war artist."
To take the point a bit further, is Otto Dix's world really "Beautiful," as the name of the exhibition says it is? Many of the 220 works on display are visually extraordinary—but beautiful is not the right word. In fact, Dix loudly repudiated beauty. Here's his description of a house on Lake Constance, where he lived later in his life: it was "so beautiful that you have to vomit." Dix's world is one of perversion, death and the somehow unpleasant weirdness of human individuality. Even portraits of friends and acquaintances are anything but flattering. Dix exaggerates prominent features of his subjects, adds decades to the age of male subjects, elongates limbs, gives his subjects yellow, misshapen eyes and colours their skin with flushes of green and pink. Something like The Bold and Grotesque World of Otto Dix might have been better a better fit.
The occasional attempt to make Dix a little more human is not really surprising; he can sometimes be hard to take. The short series "Sex Murders," for instance (which the title describes sufficiently), is mildly repulsive. Was Dix against everything and everyone? He was antibourgeois, but not in a way that aligned him with any political movement. ("Don't bother me with your idiotic politics," he once told a political artists' group. "I'd rather go to the whorehouse.") He was "drawn to the accusatory nature of Dada" and briefly involved with the group. According to Tristan Tzara, the Dadaists' motto was "Dada means nothing"; but Dix went too far in this belief. The Dadaists found him unbearably nihilistic, and the association was short-lived.
Dix's work, with its energy and imagination—and in its very refusal of beauty—can be captivating. You don't have to like him to admire it, and to feel its force.
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