Given the horrific history of Germany in the modern era, it was not to be expected that German art from the period would have much to do with scenarios of sweetness and light. A culture of violence and intolerance was bound to produce an art dominated by violent emotions and a sense of dislocation and loss. Exactly how individual talents respond to such extreme situations depends, however, not only on their artistic gifts but on the moral compass that each brings to such a daunting challenge.
It’s one of the many virtues of War/Hell: Master Prints by Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, the new exhibition at the Neue Galerie, that it gives us such vivid accounts of the way two tough-minded artists confronted this challenge without in any way minimizing its gravity or otherwise avoiding its tragic implications. Both artists had the misfortune of having had firsthand experience of trench warfare in the First World War—Beckmann as a medical orderly who suffered a nervous breakdown, Dix as a foot soldier in the trenches whose vision of life remained permanently defined (and permanently impaired) by his encounter with battlefield carnage.
Yet in their art, they brought very different sensibilities to the depiction of the horrors that shaped them. Otto Dix (1891-1969) was essentially a draftsman and caricaturist, even in his paintings, whereas Max Beckmann (1884-1950) was a humanist of heroic stature—an artist for whom the highest aspirations of the Old Masters continued to serve as an inspiration, even in the face of the catastrophe he felt compelled to deal with in his art.
As its title indicates, the exhibition is primarily devoted to the artists’ prints: the series of 12 large-format lithographs by Beckmann entitled Die Hölle (Hell), printed in 1919, and the portfolio of 50 prints by Otto Dix entitled Der Krieg (War), published in 1924. The total effect of these images of violence, suffering and death is so grim and so powerful that it’s likely to leave more tender-hearted visitors to the exhibition reeling from the experience. Even though we read about similar horrors in the newspapers every day, owing to the wars in Iraq and elsewhere, such graphic depictions of violent death remain far more disturbing than the printed word.
It has to be said, however, that it’s only in the high-intensity subject matter of these print portfolios that Dix and Beckmann can be thought to occupy common artistic ground. Elsewhere in their respective oeuvres, the scale and quality of their accomplishments are significantly unequal. As a painter, Max Beckmann occupies a place among the giants of 20th-century art. His series of heroic triptychs constitutes an achievement that, in my judgment, rivals even that of Picasso’s Guernica for first place among the masterworks of modern art. Otto Dix, however, remains a figure of secondary importance—an artist who invested the whole weight of his talent in the facile distortions of caricature. There is in Dix’s oeuvre a coarseness and vulgarity that denote a second-rate mind.
We’re given glimpses of these differences in the first room of the exhibition at the Neue Galerie, where a few paintings by Dix and Beckmann are installed. Among them are two self-portraits by Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain (1923) and Self-Portrait with Horn (1938), both of which address us as icons of unassailable self-possession: They command respect not only as aesthetic achievements but as documents of human nature. The paintings by Dix are also portraits. One of them is a picture of a semi-nude woman that’s yet another reminder of Dix’s innate vulgarity; the others are all exercises in pictorial caricature. For this viewer, anyway, the effect is to close the door on Otto Dix forever.
One hopes for a more substantial exhibition of Beckmann’s paintings in the future.
War/Hell: Master Prints by Otto Dix and Max Beckmann remains on view at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, through Sept. 26.
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