Otto Dix: The Evil Eye

November 20, 2017

I’ve been a fan of this German artist for a long time, since seeing some of his work in Stuttgart years ago, and even more since I saw his series of etchings Der Krieg (The War) at the museum of the First World War in Peronne a few years ago. So I was thrilled to be able to see a major exhibition at Tate Liverpool last month, and to get this book, which accompanied the exhibition.

I hadn’t really realised how versatile an artist he was: pen and ink drawings, watercolours, oil and tempera paintings, etchings; in your face anti-bourgeois art featuring prostitutes and sexual violence, beautifully illustrated scrapbooks for his children, astonishing portraits as bread-and-butter work, powerfully graphic anti-war drawings, and while in internal exile during the Nazi era, more spiritual landscapes…

It’s still the anti-war etchings that grip me most, though. He was on the Western Front and survived, marked by his experiences and yet at the same time conscious of a kind of exhilaration in them, which of course he would never have been able to express had he not come through alive… The etchings are mostly very graphic, and horrifyingly violent – indeed one, of a German soldier raping a Belgian nun, a story which featured widely in atrocity propaganda of the time, was suppressed from the opening exhibition on the grounds that the authorities would immediately have used it as an excuse to ban the entire exhibition… There are fifty etchings, using a range of techniques, in five folios in all, presenting a wide range of aspects of the horrors of the Great War.

As I’ve remarked else where, because of my relative lack of knowledge of art, techniques and terminology, I do find it hard to articulate my responses to much of what I see, other than saying, well, I like it, or, it appeals to me… I have found that good art makes me stop and look carefully, think and reflect; it often draws me back to it. I won’t know why, exactly, but this arresting effect feels important. I think it is akin to my response to a good deal of modern poetry: I am brought up short by being made to see something with a different eye, from a different perspective. And surely, this is the gift of a great artist or writer, to make us see afresh, anew?

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