It is not often that art audiences in Pakistan get to experience works that offer a glimpse into history, into a different era and the motivations that drive artists of the time. Goethe-Institut recently presented an exhibition that allowed for just such an opportunity, with an extensive collection of 86 prints and etchings by German artist Otto Dix, dating back to the early 1920s. The exhibition title, “War & Social Criticism”, is an apt summarization of the works on display, which range from Dix’s explorations of the marginalia of German society with provocative flair, to a gripping look at the devastation of war — two themes that he is known and celebrated for.
The German painter and printmaker is known for his realistic and brutally honest depictions of German society during the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. His style ranges from Expressionism to Dadaism, but hemost widely recognized as one of the most important artists of the New Objectivity movement. The works on display paint a picture of 1920s Germany, and the post-war climate that shaped its society. The imagery is provocative, gruesome, and at times heartbreaking, using the language of caricature to satirize the ills of society, critiquing its center through a look at its peripheries, and portraying those aspects that most did not want to see or talk about. “Procuress” is a portrait of a heavyset, perhaps middle-aged woman with a cigarette between her lips, which, as art historian Andrea Welz explains during her guided tour, was a shocking image for that time when cigarettes were a new thing, and smoking in public, especially for women, was not common. As Welz puts it, Dix’s art “knows no taboos”.
“Sex Murder” shows the corpse of scantily clad prostitute, a gruesome display of sexual violence, while “Sex Murderer” reveals the face of the monster in the middle of the act, amongst sliced up limbs. Multiple works depict unconventional sexual relations between prostitutes and their clients, while a number of works champion outcasts of society, such as circus performers, as “Scorners of Death”. However, a large number of his works focus on war cripples, which paints a true depiction of the post war era and the ways in which it affected the veterans. “Matchseller”, which he also turned into a painting, shows a crippled beggar on the streets, ignored by the passersby. It is interesting that the artist ignores rules of perspective and skews the standing figures to display as much of their legs as possible to pronounce their privilege and the contrast between them and the protagonist of the piece. There is a lot of such subtle symbolism in his works, where composition choices that appear random actually serve a purpose, such as the dogs in the foreground of “Sex Murder” which signify a kind of animal instinct that lies at the heart of both sex and violence.
One of Dix’s most iconic paintings “Grosstadt (Triptych)” in a way combines his depictions of upper class intellectuals and outcasts of society to critique what lies at the heart of both, creating a true encapsulation of post-war German society of the ‘20s. While the panels on the right show us a scene from a nightclub, with jazz musicians, dancing women with short hair and knee-length skirts, and ample wine, the left panel depicts the scene outside where crippled beggars and prostitutes roam. These dichotomous scenes are both symptoms of the same ailment: war; while one is a direct consequence, the other is a deeper, more psychological manifestation of it, born from the need to escape its realities.
The rest of the show focuses on some 50 prints from his series of 500 which are a more direct depictions of the brutality of war and the devastation the First World War caused. As a volunteer soldier on the front lines, Dix saw his share of the harsh realities of war, its horrors and the consequences on not just human lives, but on the landscape and wildlife as well. From dead horses, to pockmarked smoking fields, to mangled faces stricken with pain and horror, to destroyed homes and cities under attack, every gruesome aspect is covered in these works with strikingly blatant and raw visuals.
In all these works, Dix’s relationship with the body is intriguing, as there is a somewhat deliberate rejection of idealistic depictions. From caricatures faces and stylized bodies, to mangled faces, crippled soldiers and violently sliced up bodies, none of his depictions adhere to the rules of the perfect human form. Perhaps it was a reaction to the art that came before, or the fact that he himself survived the war physically whole while so many fellow veterans were living crippled lives, but there seems to be something about the imperfect, unconventional and desecrated form of the body that seems to attract Dix and inspire his imagery.
Unfortunately, as Welz explains, Dix’s promising career of the 20s was soon thwarted by the Nazi regime in 1933, when his anti-war rhetoric and provocative imagery was dubbed “degenerate” and he not only lost his teaching job but was also not allowed to exhibit or sell his work. Perhaps this is a testament to his influence on public moods and sentiments, and the power art holds to drive certain narratives and shape societies and their mindsets, but it also sadly reflects the tendency of certain parties to exercise control and manipulate these mindsets through censorship and suppression of free speech. The world soon forgot the ugly truths about war and its pervasive negative influence on society, and history soon repeated itself.