The first image I faced at the Neue Galerie’s Otto Dix show was a wan, watercolor portrait of a man with a half-maimed face. I recoiled before turning back to study it more closely. Dix’s work often does not reward extended viewing—the longer you stare, the more horror emerges. In this case, I found myself suddenly making out the empty pocket where the soldier’s eye should have been, a subtle gradation within the explosive red of his wound. The rest of the drawing gallery only gets more difficult. As his drawings and etchings of his time in the trenches of WWI make clear, Dix’s dark view of people didn’t come from nowhere—this is no moody expressionism born purely of the mind.
It’s hard to know what to make of Dix. To “like” him is a tall order, unless one goes in for murdered prostitutes and that sort of thing. Particularly in his portraits of women, Dix can be hard to stomach. In one of several “Half-Nudes,” his subject clutches herself defensively, shrinking back from the observer and, one imagines, from the way the painter must have looked on her. It feels a violation to stare too long. The portraits of men are more generous, but still unstinting. There’s something quietly devastating in the posture of his subject in “Portrait of the Lawyer Fritz Glaser”—the powerless slouch, the grey face drained of life. I could only get one of his eyes to connect with me at a time.
Still, Dix has his rare moments of tenderness that make the rest of his work harder to parse. “Nursing Mother” is free of the sheen of death that colors so many of his paintings. It’s paintings like these, coupled with the war drawings, that give a clue to the hardness so visible elsewhere—Dix has a real eye for hurt, and he doesn’t flinch from the fact that capturing it can seem a form of deepening it. It’s this uneasy admixture of hyper-sensitivity and callousness that makes him ideally suited to capture Weimar-era Germany: he sees the decay that goes hand in hand, etymologically and otherwise, with the decadence of the period. Dix is often noted for his “cruelty” to his subjects, but there’s a way in which his refusal to shy from the reality of their private anguish is a twisted inversion of the tenderness that sometimes flickers through. His greatness is that he not only forces real discomfort, but that he recognizes it in those he paints where others might not. For all his brilliance, there’s a reason I couldn’t find a postcard of his work that I’d actually want to hang over my desk. winpalace im banking
A selection of the images from the show is available from the NYRB here.