REVIEW: "Otto Dix" at the Neue Galerie
By Elizabeth Greenwood
One's name seems to determine one's lot in life. If as a boy your parents christened you with a looming name like Wells Tower, for example, then they sent you on an intentional path to muckraking journalism and moody short stories. Were you nicknamed Big Bill Haywood, a desk would not suit you. You could only be a rabble-rousing labor organizer. Elizabeth Greenwood, hard-nosed art beat reporter. But if you happened to be named Otto Dix, the strength of those short vowels mingling with staccato consonants, intersecting with the inevitability of history, then you would be charged with portraying the guts, gore, and devastation of post-World War I Germany.
They say that the war cripple and the whore symbolize the Weimar Republic of 1919-1933. In spite of a few minor details like unprecedented death tolls, the rise of fascism, and economic meltdown, artistic expression flourished during this time. Cabaret and Bauhaus carved a distinctly German identity out of the rubble of war, two iconic totems that future generations of misfits would embrace generations later. But far beyond industrial design and false eyelashes, Dix painted the misery and hypocrisy that surrounded him with equal strokes of scorn and black humor.
Dix served in combat during World War I, and the disembodied limbs he painted in gauche colors are fresh from the battlefields. The raw immediacy of suffering is palpable on the canvas-his translucent watercolors look like skin, the pencil beneath like veins. Just looking at some of his drawings induces post-traumatic stress. But it is difficult to look away. In a way they are almost like one of those photo collage posters they used to sell at the mall, where each tiny photo of Diana refracts into the larger portraiture of the Princess of Wales. If you look at just the brushstrokes, you see gouged out eyes, the intestines, the tongue, all the dead pieces of a body that are not at all larger than the sum of their parts.
The gazes from his portraits are unflinching. They are larger than life, with cartoonish, exaggerated features. Dix's people are unapologetic, self-possessed, owning up to who or what they are. In Dix's self-portraits, he paints himself cross-eyed. One would think that in a self-portrait, where you, the artist, retain total creative control, you would paint yourself in the best light. If I were to paint my self-portrait, I would probably omit the scales that cover my skin. Whether or not Dix was cross-eyed is beside the point, because he projected himself as such. He obviously had a good sense of humor, or low self-esteem, but the two do seem to go hand in hand.
If Dix is unforgiving to himself, then he is less than charitable to his women. His female subjects are grotesque and seem overripe, almost fetid. They are all prostitutes, if not in real life, then on the canvas. Does Dix have lady issues? Rather, it seems he has people issues, but it's a low-grade misanthropy. Most of his characters are unsavory, ranging between scary and downright horrifying. But when he is taken by someone, it's clear, like Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber. She's witchy, but still foxy. She's complicated, rather than just being a pair of pendulous breasts saddled over a post-partum belly like most of the other women he painted.
People frequently bandy about the verb "curate." With total earnestness or lack of irony, this refers to anything with some element of choice, such as a lecture series being "curated" or the "curator" of a runway show. Back on planet Earth, an art gallery is a place wherein things are actually curated. This show is expertly curated. The show begins with Dix's early drawings and etchings to reveal un-buoyed alienation leading up to his commentary of German society through paintings of class, and then leading to a crescendo of larger- than- life, furiously colored portraits in the last room. It is a comprehensive look at the capacity for destruction, and the choice of what to do with it when it engulfs you. Dix acknowledges it with a drunken two-step and a sidelong, cross-eyed glare, and you can't look away, even if you wanted to. But you won't.
"Otto Dix" will be on display at the Neue Galerie through August 30th.