Art in Europe English

Expressionism: Final Part

In a watercolour titled like a holiday souvenir snapshot, Me in Brussels, Dix depicted himself as a soldier; cigarette clamped in the mouth and with hot red gaze fixed intently on the ample buttocks of a prostitute. He pursues her into the inviting light of a brothel. In his written notes and in interviews, Dix often underlined what he saw as the essential link between the drives to sex and to war. Later, in post-war Germany, he also came to see the fate of the male war cripple and the female prostitute as a shared one. Grosz emerged from mental hospital in 1917, convinced that his epoch was sinking ever further into destruction. He created a spectacular visual testimony to this presentiment in a scene of medieval, nocturnal horror on the streets of modern Berlin. It is a carnival of sex, death and drunkenness. This was his Widmung an Oskar Panizza (Homage to Oskar Panizza) of 1917-1918. The painting also testifies to Grosz’s unique ability to convey madness and utter havoc within a tightly structured composition. The sharp diagonals and rushing perspective of the scene are expressive of violent chaos and symbolically, of the fateful dynamism and velocity of a civilization hurtling into the abyss.

George Grosz, Homage to Oskar Panizza, 1917-1919. Oil on canvas, 114 x 100cm. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Max Beckmann’s Die Nacht (The Night) opens a window onto a domestic interior that has become a cold and deadly torture chamber. It is a bleak view of humanity. It is also historically specific – the painting is inscribed with the dates August 1918 – March 1919. Its iconography has its origins in Beckmann’s drawings made in wartime operating theatres. Rejecting Expressionist fervour and bravura, Beckmann painted the scene in leaden, sickly, colours with surgical precision. The work has been justifiably compared with Picasso’s Guernica – from another violent period in Europe’s history – for its evocation of the barbaric cruelty of human conflict and the forces of suppression.

Max Beckmann, The Night, 1918-1919. Oil on canvas, 153 x 133 cm. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf

In a different response to the chaos of 1919, Kollwitz created a dignified and expressive memorial to Liebknecht with one of her best-known woodcuts. She based her image on the motif of the Lamentation of Christ, thereby emphasizing to viewers the martyrdom of the Spartacists. Like so many of Kollwitz’s works on the theme of death, the image focuses on the shared experience of the loss and bereavement of those left behind. Here, a group of workers gaze on the body of Liebknecht, mourning not only his death, but also the death of the longed-for revolution. The message of the memorial to 15 January 1919 is, as the inscription puts it, “From the living to the dead”.

The heightened class consciousness that the revolutionary period brought was a factor in the work of Conrad Felixmüller. In 1920, he was only twenty-three years old, studying in Dresden, when he won a prestigious art scholarship to go to Rome for two years. He asked for the money to finance a field trip to the industrial Ruhr District instead. There, in cities and towns such as Essen, Recklinghausen and Gelsenkirchen he made paintings and prints of the landscape of the coalmining industry and its workers. The area had also been the site of some of the bloodiest fighting and Felixmüller expressed his deep admiration for the Rote Ruhr-Armee (Red Ruhr Army) of workers who had fought against right-wing Putschists and Freikorps when they attempted a military coup in 1920. Wearing red armbands, they patrol the city night in his Ruhrrevier II (Ruhr District II).

In conclusion, we return to Dix. He produced two works, one at the start of the ill-fated Weimar Republic and one at its end, that both function in different ways as arguably some of the most powerful visual anti-war statements ever made. Dix’s Skat Players of 1920 uses paint and collage to construct ironically and reveal unflinchingly three card-playing soldiers’ shattered bodies. Their disfigured features are based on the photographs of horrifically maimed soldiers that were circulated by pacifist organizations and the Left press at this time. In the work of Dix, Grosz and others, the figure of the war cripple functioned not as an object of pity, but as an accusation and a warning against militarism.

Otto Dix , Skat Players, 1920. Oil with collage, 110 x 85 cm. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

In 1932, Dix was internationally recognized and was working as a professor at the Dresden Academy. There, he worked laboriously on a monumental triptych, War. The meticulous painting on wood, in the manner and the format of a Christian altarpiece, looks back to the memory – collective memory and Dix’s own – of the First World War. More pressingly, in the face of growing support for the Nazis and resurgent militarism in Germany, it sounded another warning. In the left panel, soldiers depart for war, on a path analogous with the Road to Calvary. In the centre panel an impaled corpse, pointing with an accusatory finger, echoes the Crucifixion. The scene on the right evokes both the hellfires of a Bosch or a Brueghel and the Deposition. The predella, where the entombed Christ is usually depicted, shows sleeping soldiers. Thus, finally, the work’s orchestrated correspondence with the iconography of the Passion lends it a universal and timeless significance as a lamentation on war.

Otto Dix , The War (Artillery), 1914. Oil on cardboard, 98 x 69 cm. Kunstmuseum , Dusseldorf

These two major works by Dix, separated by twelve years, are very different in technique. They both contain elements that can be traced to Expressionism and the movement’s medieval and “primitive” roots. However, they both also testify to some of the doubts about the Expressionist mode of working with which many avant-garde artists grappled in the Weimar period. Skat Players show the cynicism that made both Dix and Grosz natural allies of the Dadaists for a while. War involves a return to the explicit depiction of reality and a newly intensified engagement with the Old Masters. The next, concluding chapter surveys some of the forms the “death of Expressionism” took.

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