Reassessing Otto DixDavid Yorkshire
Otto Dix was a German artist who is now celebrated as one of the great painters of the twentieth century, probably in no small part because he was put on the National Socialists’ list of degenerate artists, as, to the unthinking postmodern Left, anything the National Socialists hated is automatically considered good. Equally though, the postmodern cultureless cartoon Nazis of today’s corrupted Right consider him a degenerate artist also simply because his artworks were deemed Entartete Kunst by the NSDAP. The irony is that Dix’s work is far more congruent with the concerns of the Right than those of the Left, and so I thought it was about time to reassess the man and his oeuvre.
One cannot help but draw comparisons here between Dix and a certain other German artist and war hero. While Adolf Hitler was refused a place at the Viennese Academy, Dix was mentored by Richard Guhr at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Dresden, with whom he was to maintain a lifelong friendship. Guhr’s tutelage is interesting, because Guhr was a Wagnerite who openly blamed organised Jewry for the decline and increasing degeneracy in the arts, especially during the Weimar period, and Dix must have been made aware, as the two became lifelong friends. Certainly, one or two of his paintings demonstrate his awareness of the Jewish question, like Pragerstraße (1920), in which a pamphlet bears the headline “Juden raus!“:
Philo-Semitic art critics have attempted to imprint their ideology on the painting, even going so far as to claim the war-wounded beggar is a Jew as delineated by his features. Yet there is nothing Jewish about his face: his beard is golden and his nose not hooked, but as broken as the rest of him, his eyes, feet, and an arm missing completely. They have also pointed to the other pamphlet which talks about a “Diktatur von rechts,” but again these are typical of political propaganda leaflets being distributed at the time. The point is what is not being talked about, which is the wounded veterans of the First World War, who are having to beg in the street and here both symbolically and literally in the image being reduced to the level of dogs while the comfortable bourgeoisie walk by in their finery and the shops stock goods they cannot afford, including the prosthetics that might make their lives a little easier. When juxtaposed with the pamphlet about the Jews, it naturally leaves the viewer to associate the two, and there is no question that the Jews prospered as a group during this time. Pragerstraße was the main commercial street in Dresden where Dix lived, and such scenes would have been commonplace. We also see here Dix’s black humor on the subject, the man in the bowler hat appearing almost like the child’s toy. This theme of wounded soldiers and their ostracism from mainstream Weimar society is typical of this period of the artist’s development, as seen in the tryptich Großstadt (1928):
This painting displays all the corruption of Weimar Germany. While the central panel shows a lavish bourgeois soirée painted in rich warm colors, it is flanked by the outer panels that reflect a paler outer world of prostitutes, wounded soldiers still in their old uniforms, and snarling dogs that keep them away from “polite society.” One might also remark on the style here, which is modernist in keeping with the times. Yet Dix, who as we will see was an accomplished technician, turns Neue Sachlichkeit against modernist society. Neue Sachlichkeit‘s rejection of Romanticism, Futurism, and Expressionism meant a hard critical eye on a world stripped of glamour and feeling. It naturally gives rise to satire and caricature, which is readily observed in the two paintings above, even if the latter is technically superior and more realistic. The Weimar Republic is stripped of its facades and Dix looks to the dark psychology behind it, the character of the society itself being imprinted on faces and bodies, the most famous examples being Dix’s portraits of the dancer and actress Anita Berber (1925) (below, top) and the journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926) (below, beneath):
Addicted to alcohol and various opiates, bisexually promiscuous, Anita Berber was often a dancer and actress in the more euphemistic sense and died in poverty while in a marriage of convenience to homosexual American dancer Henri Châtin Hofmann, aged 29. In the painting, she is only 25, yet the toll of her lifestyle is seen in both face and body, making her seem haggard, old before her time. As with Sylvia von Harden, the body is twisted and contorted as a reflection both upon the psychology of the modern woman and upon Weimar society at large, and one also notes the symbolic use of the color red. Von Harden was to report the conversation she had with Dix in a 1959 article, “Erinnerungen an Dix,” about how the portrait came to fruition:
“I must paint you! I simply must! . . . You are representative of an entire epoch!”
“So, you want to paint my lackluster eyes, my ornate ears, my long nose, my thin lips; you want to paint my long hands, my short legs, my big feet—things which can only scare people off and delight no one?”
“You have brilliantly characterized yourself, and all that will lead to a portrait representative of an epoch concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition.”
If women are portrayed as ugly and twisted as the male war veterans in their caricatures, the men who inhabit the bourgeois Weimar society have often become effete and effeminate to the point where pubic grooming has become de rigeur, as in Der Gott der Friseure! (1922) (below), in which the male has become a pale, self-absorbed mannequin surrounded by wigs and perfumes, and there is a definite suggestion that, like Tony Blair, he might be called Miranda in certain bars at the weekend:
Dix’s attitude here is interesting because it seems that modernity is stacked up against masculinity. In becoming an industrial abbatoir, the old outlet of war is stripped of its opportunity for glory, while peacetime society lures men into vice and effeminacy. It is a quandary that has still been unresolved, the question being left to mentally retarded and unstable feminist and LGBTPJQ+ activists, who have not even been able to resolve their own issues. We see also in Dix’s paintings that waiting as a scavenger to pick the bones of post-First World War Europe, the odd Negro has crept into society in paintings like An die Schönheit (1922) (below), seen as a lasciviously grinning chancer, ever ready for opportunities for white women and aided and abetted by the bourgeois businessman, an ironic self-portrait, telephone in hand, ready to sell out his people in another transaction:
In both this painting and the aforementioned Großstadt, one notices the music associated with Weimar degeneracy: jazz, which recalls the words of Herman Hesse in Der Steppenwolf:
From a dance hall there met me as I passed by the strains of lively jazz music, hot and raw as the stream of raw flesh …. I stood for a moment on the scent, smelling this shrill and blood-raw music, sniffing the atmosphere of the hall angrily, and hankering after it a little too. One half of this music, the melody, was all pomade and sugar and sentimentality. The other half was savage, temperamental and vigorous. Yet the two went artlessly well together and made a whole. It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors …. There was something of the Negro in it, and something of the American, who with all his strength seems so boyishly fresh and childlike to us Europeans. Was Europe to become the same?
Jazz, whether viewed as a positive, a negative, or a mixture of both by artists and writers of the time was always seen as an entry point for Americanism and for multiracialism, just as rock and roll would be in the 1950s. Here, the Negro’s lecherous evil grin suggests Dix views it negatively, and one notes the American Indian design on his bass drum, the whole scene foreshadowing Hesse’s 1929 novel. Indeed, one cannot help but note that Jews were at the forefront of promoting the Jazz scene, both in Germany and America, as Henry Ford noted in his publication The International Jew. Perhaps Dix’s most revealing painting regarding Jewry is ‘Kreuztragung’ (1943) (below), in which we see an Aryan Jesus being flagellated by two Jews in contemporary dress.
The Aryan Jesus is in keeping with National Socialist ideology, with key philosophers and theologians like Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Dietrich Eckart, and Walter Grundmann having attempted to remove Christianity from its Semitic root by promoting the erroneous idea that Jesus was not of Jewish stock. This we see here, contrasted with the swarthy and Semitic features of Jesus’ persecutors. One might be tempted, given the date of the painting, to put it down to pressure from NSDAP officials, but Dix was not forced to paint at all. Indeed, when the NSDAP came to power in January 1933, Dix was removed from his position as lecturer at the Dresden Academy for the reason . . .
. . . that one finds among his pictures such ones that are seriously harmful to the moral sentiments of the German people and others that are wont to adversely affect the martial spirit of the German people.
It is an interesting quotation and one can see both sides. Even in the decadent Weimar Republic, Dix’s paintings had been brought into question, with Der Schützengraben (1923) (below) that depicted the full horror of a First World War trench having come in for extreme criticism after its exposition in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne:
The following year, the Jewish painter, banker, and art collector Max Liebermann had it exhibited at the Prussian Academy of Arts. There is no doubt here that Liebermann meant it as part of a concerted Jewish attack on German sensibilities, as much as Otto Dix had not. For Dix, it was about portraying the harsh realities of industrial warfare as a reminder that such wars were to be avoided. The NSDAP also exhibited the painting, but in the 1937 exhibition of Entartete Kunst. This was very much a disservice to Dix, who was apolitical, but equally one of the Weimar Republic’s biggest critics in the arts. The NSDAP could not have wished for a better propagandist during the 1920s! Yet National Socialist ideology was predicated on militarism, as seen in the quotation above in the reason for his sacking, and perhaps instead of destroying his artworks (the one above is considered lost) they perhaps ought to have listened to what he had to say, as Germany lurched towards another war. It is important to remember that Dix had not always had the same attitude to war and, like Hitler, had rushed to enlist at the outbreak of the First World War, painting his Futurist Selbstbildnis als Mars (1915) (below):
The portrait borrows from Cubism and features himself as the God of War in full ceremonial uniform surrounded by the violence of war. While Hitler grew to celebrate war, however, Dix grew disillusioned with the pointless industrialized slaughter, the disillusionment exacerbated by the post-war treatment of the wounded. Dix could and did also paint positive, inspirational pieces. His Selbstbildnis mit Jan (1930) (very top), Jan being his own son, demonstrates the power of paternalism, the celebration of new life in Europe and the artist as creative force. The land behind in the picture is without detail, which emphasizes the boy held aloft in the sky, golden as the Sun. Equally, regularly inspected as he was by NSDAP functionaries, he spent most of the National Socialist era painting landscapes when he was not involved in the war effort again as a soldier. Below is one such painting, 1938’s Berninalandschaft:
After the Second World War, Dix’s work really did degenerate, as occupying Judaic ideology in the arts took over, and there is little more to say about his daubing in the latter period of his life. So what is the lesson here? It is that there must always be a balance of cultural control and freedom in society. National Socialism’s heavy-handedness saw even supporters like Emil Nolde being banned. One must always be aware of the difference between a healthy critique of society and unhealthy critique of society in the arts, between an intent to improve it and an intent to destroy it. Certainly, Otto Dix’s concern was for his fellow war veterans who had suffered more than himself and to warn of the effects of further mechanical warfare. In the homeless ex-servicemen begging on the streets, we see parallels today, as our own European servicemen are sent off to the Middle East to fight for corporate and Israeli interests, where they are killed or maimed, and the survivors then treated as stray dogs upon their return, an increasing number ending up on the streets. Perhaps we could do with an Otto Dix today, whose shock value, unlike that of the artists today, was not divorced from meaning and pathos and spoke truth to power.
This article originally appeared at the Mjolnir Magazine Website on May 23, 2018. Be sure to check out Mjolnir‘s YouTube channel, Mjolnir at the Movies, which features film commentary from a Right-wing pagan perspective.
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Regarding Degenerate Art… I think I read in one of David Irving´s books (about Goebbles?) that the exhibition was a project of Goebbels specifically, and that by no means all members of the german leading circles were on board with the whole approach (e.g. I think to remember that Alfred Rosenberg was critical)… so maybe that´s a subject for an article because I would like to know more about that.
Anyways there are a lot of details about that time that became conventional wisdom but are very different… not alluding to the obvious subject but: e.g. the Reichskristallnacht to have been vastly different from what we think, and really the NS leadership immediately stepping in to stop it, it was actually a jewish plot to discredit the NS system; this I learned at Carolyn Yeager at the late VoR radio. Another topic the Röhm Putsch, I think I also read in an Irving book, of-course totally different from conventional version, in reality Hitler having acted with utmost reserve (maybe upon the attack of these groups then taking occasion to clean up but only as reaction)… in short: there may be many incorrect views about this time and it´s interesting to correct the distorted versions (obvious controversies are Reichstagsbrand and start of Poland campaign false-flags yes or no but as pointed out, there may be many more items that are little known, yet relevant for an assessment of the goings-on).
Thanks for this. I like Otto Dix’s work. He sees the world through a shattered or distorted mirror which only someone who lived in it could and who had that artist’s eye. It seems to me it is very much a precursor to our modern animation, graphic novels, adult cartoons on TV and in movies. Reality exaggerated and distorted with coded messages.
I think the author does not understand why “Entartete Kunst” was considered “entartet” (degenerate) by National Socialists.
Nobody objects to Dix’s technical excelence as a painter, not even the Nazis. Picasso was an excelent painter, too, as was Dali, and others, nearly all of the bunch.
The point is not, whether an artist has technical competence, the point is whether he uses it to transmit political messages. Since we live in times where all art (and even non-art as sports) is used to transmit political messages we condemn the NS for restricting artists to jump into political frays and show the ugly side of life.
In the NS concept, art is to make people aware of higher ideals – Zarathustra’s ‘I teach you the superman’, if you like, or Gothic cathedrals if you dont.
Look at Greek and Roman art, Breker sculptures, Michelangolo, Verdi, Wagner, Bach. Couldn’t they have shown us the horrors of mutilated, leprous and poor? Of course, they could. WWI was not really exceptional. But they didn’t.
So the author lost a nice occasion to discuss what is/should be the role of art: indoctrination/messaging or ‘human elevation’.
And BTW his view is a little unilateral:
Dix was by no means neutral or on the NS side. His contemptuous bourgois comes with a “Juden raus” journal, which is clearly an indictment. On the other hand, Hitler did not “celebrate war”.
Or the re-creation of life as experienced by the artist, in a distilled form. I’m reminded of the quote about the great James Tissot:
“Our industrial and artistic creations can perish, our morals and our fashions can fall into obscurity, but a picture by M. Tissot will be enough for archaeologists of the future to reconstitute our epoch.”
Maybe Dix thought degeneration was cool (I don’t think he really did), but that’s irrelevant. What’s important is that he managed to convey what modern life was like in Weimar Germany. There was something duplicitious about the Nazi exhibition: it was not the art that was degenerate, but the society that created it. The art was doing what it was supposed to do, and that’s why it could be used by the Nazis to get their message about social degeneration through to the public. They took the best of the Left and made it their own, without giving credit where credit was due.
“he managed to convey what modern life was like in Weimar Germany”
That’s just the point.
Another one of the Lefts’s darlings having fled from National Socialism, playwright and Stalin Peace Price Bert Brecht, saw the purpose of his creations in that spectators leave the theater unconfortable, with a bad feeling.
The Nazis – all of them war veterans – were well aware of the mutilated and they were the first to blame the degeneration of Weimar’s political and social system. But they thought art is not to convey the misery of life, that can be left to the newspapers.
In the NS concept, art is edification, has to inspire ‘higher feelings’, showing beauty, not ugliness, showing what life should be, not what misery it is.
And art should not mock Christianity, painting Weimar corruption in a tryptich, usually used in church altars, or Dix painting himself in St. Christopher pose with his son as Jesus…
That’s my mother’s Facebook feed. But I agree that state-sponsored art should be uplifting and inspirational. My taxes shouldn’t be spent on showing misery and ugliness, unless it’s a classic (Goya). The state should also finance the continuation of the crafts – in the style of late 19th century academic painting schools – and stuff public places with gorgeus pieces.
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