Bitter Truths

Otto Dix

an exhibition at the Neue Galerie, New York City, March 11–August 30, 2010, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, September 24, 2010–January 2, 2011
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Olaf Peters
Prestel, 257 pp., $65.00

In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum opened one of the most engrossing shows of twentieth-century art it has ever done. This was “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” a beautifully selected look at the work of Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix, and a number of lesser-known figures—including Karl Hubbuch, Ludwig Meidner, and Christian Schad—during the notoriously fraught era bounded, on one end, by the conclusion of World War I and, on the other, by the rise of Hitler. Concentrating as it did primarily on portraits, the exhibition managed both to give a strong taste of the Weimar Republic of legend—the society unhinged by its unimaginable war losses, barely functioning economy, unstable politics, and uninhibited, and often deviant, sexuality—and to go behind it. That is to say, for all that we were given a view of fat, cigar-chomping factory owners, hideously crippled veterans, streetwalkers, and transvestites, we also encountered a wide range of fascinating faces onto whom we could project, or might choose not to project, the tensions of the time.

Organized by Sabine Rewald with a connoisseur’s feeling for works with a bracing formal presence, the show erased much of what might have seemed dated about the era. It wasn’t a surprise—yet it felt good to see it so plainly reconfirmed by the works on view—that Max Beckmann’s pictures, with their way of presenting faces of a mysterious yet not off-putting aloofness, had a solidity that put him in a different category from his compatriots. The paintings of Christian Schad, in turn, with their fastidious realism at the service of a lidded and sexualized mood, where people have the unnerving presence of lizards, were hard to take your eyes from. But the motor behind “Glitter and Doom” was Otto Dix. His fifty-odd paintings and drawings, good-sized in both cases, made up a little over half of the exhibition, and, arresting in their ambition and often cartoonish energy, they were something of a revelation.

The Met’s show was the first time most of us had seen so much of the work of Dix—who was born in 1891 and died in 1969—and the chief impression it left was of an artist who operated with a charging, sometimes outrageous, sense of freedom. It wasn’t exactly because, in his account of the topsy-turvy Weimar years, he outdid George Grosz and everyone else in the gleeful frankness with which he showed an array of aged prostitutes with breasts sagging to their waists, or veterans of the trenches missing legs, chins, eyes, and much of their cheeks, or sadists and their bloodied victims. What was unexpected and remarkable about Dix was, rather, the will-try-anything way in which he put paint on canvas and the fluency with which, in his portraits of professional men, children, and older women, he could move from one stylistic approach to another.

Dix is now the subject of his first large American exhibition, at the Neue Galerie …

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