Monday, January 31, 2011

(No.135) Otto Dix: warped but wonderful

The first time I recall taking note of the art of Otto Dix was perhaps 20 years ago on a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The AGO had acquired a Dix painting they displayed as one of several works along a hallway down which we regularly walked. The painting was a striking, almost ghoulish 1920 portrait of a German clinical psychologist Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann. The style reflected the fact that it had been painted by a profoundly disillusioned German World War I veteran -- Otto Dix (1891-1969).

On virtually every subsequent visit Pat and I made to the AGO I made a point of looking, however briefly, at this Dix painting with its subject who appears to be mad, shining and bulging eyes prominent in the portrait, wing collar, thin wrists protruding from the sleeves of a formal frock coat.

The Stadelmann portrait was painted during Dix's 1920-22 sojourn in Dresden, a time when he saw himself as an artistic rebel. A friend recalled Dix saying at this time that "I just can't seem to make it, my paintings are unsaleable! Someday I'll either be famous or infamous!"

It has taken decades but Dix is now recognized fairly widely on both sides of the Atlantic. The Tate Gallery in London certainly helped the cause with its 1991 retrospective of Dix's work. Last year the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Neue Galerie of New York co-organized the first main exhibit of Otto Dix's work in North America, presenting some 220 pieces in an impressively satisfying tribute. Given the treatment of his art by the Third Reich it is fortunate that as much of it survived as did. He was one of those artists the Nazis labelled a producer of "degenerate art".

Dix's paintings, especially the portraits, are unusual, striking, some even grotesque but impressively memorable. Sometimes these days referred to as an 'expressionist' painter, Dix was in fact the leading artist of the style known as Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity, which pervaded an entire period of post-war German art.

Dix was fascinated by all the different forms in which human life appeared, especially those that were extreme in nature. One art critic, Sabine Rewald, has noted that Otto Dix and other artists of the era were "injecting bile into their paintings as a way of coming back from the dead." I agree but it is hardly surprising. His paintings reflect the extraordinary grimness not only of his experiences in the trenches but also a post-war Germany with two million orphans, one million widows, a million invalids, mass unemployment, hyperinflation and street battles.

Those who have never seen a Dix painting should not conclude from what I have written that he was an angry, unskilled painter whose works are characterized by a talentless daubing of paint to produce paintings unrecognizable as representing much of anything. Later in his life Dix articulated his categorical rejection of abstract painting: "I base everything on the visible," he said in 1958. "I don't want to invent new themes and arrange them as Salvador Dali does."

Images of the beggars in the street, the prostitutes in the brothels, the drunks in the bars, these were also images Otto Dix painted. They are indeed "realistic" in the sense that they are recognizable as such but they have been painted , as I think of it, in a fashion several degrees off centre -- far enough off to make them appear unusual and sometimes warped. Dix is an acquired taste but he has become one of my favourite painters; Pat does share my enthusiasm for Dix.

Although Dix never visited Canada there is a Canadian connection. His first son Ursus immigrated to Canada and worked as a painting conservator in Vancouver. He was named in 1979 as the head of conservation at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

To view images of some of Otto Dix's paintings, the reader can visit:

1. The Online Otto Dix Project at

2. Otto Dix reproductions at

3. Art by Otto Dix at


Alastair Rickard