Enter through a dark and inconspicuous makeshift tunnel into a dim and cavernous room filled with violent and brutal images. The only initial indicator of their source is the name “Otto Dix” scrawled in an almost aggressive white script across the sinister entrance. This somber, grayish space is the first room of a rather large solo exhibition of the German artist at the Neue Galerie.
The Neue Galerie, on the Upper East Side, is a prominent 20th-century German and Austrian art museum. The Otto Dix exhibition, the first of its kind in North America, displays a large selection of the influential artist’s work—ranging from the 1910s to mid 1930s—and is scheduled to run through Aug. 30.
The first room displays 50 of Dix’s etchings in simple monochromatic frames. These etchings all focus on war—the artist spent three years in the trenches as a soldier for the German army—and reflect the physical violence and brutality of battle and its aftermath. The pieces show a range of subjects: from the disfigured face of a wounded soldier, to a corpse, to sailors fondling a prostitute. The small scale, the darkness of the ink, and the violence with which the figures and landscapes are rendered make the subjects hard to distinguish. Dix forces viewers to get up close—to really focus on the images and be horrified at their graphic violence.
After this first room, one must climb to the third floor for the main part of the exhibit. These rooms are organized loosely by chronology, but the focus seems to lie more explicitly on subject matter and style. The viewer transitions gracefully from etchings to watercolors to the largest oil and tempera portraits (for which Dix is best known) in the last room.
Dix’s portraits are personal and emotional. The works in the first series we see are fairly naturalistic and display a subtle aggression in the representation of the human body. There are two very striking female nudes: “Pregnant Woman (Semi-Nude)” (1931) and “Half-Nude” (1926), which when juxtaposed with the earlier battle etchings, suggest a much more subtle emphasis on the violence of the human body.
The later portraits are even larger and are examples of Dix’s use of color to capture and represent his subjects. These pieces are striking in their scale and the saturation of color. Dix clearly strays from the limits of strict naturalism to imbue the images with more personality and emotion. This is best exemplified in his portrait of dancer Anita Berber (1925), a close friend of Dix.
The layout of the exhibit is clearly meant to lead visitors to the end room, where the emphasis has noticeably been placed on this piece. It hangs in the very middle of the back wall, commanding attention with its vibrant reds and oranges. There is no doubt that this is the focal point of the exhibition. The piece reflects Berber’s glamorous and self-destructive lifestyle; her pose is dignified but somewhat contrived. The intimate yet distorted realism of the piece is what characterizes Dix’s significance to modern German art. This work expertly represents his artistic style as an honest, sometimes brutal, portrayal of Weimar Germany.