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Detail from War Triptych (1929-1932), Otto Dix,
Oil and Tempera on Wood, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden


 

       

In Search
of A Sylph

 
 

(After Otto Dix & the Grotesque)

   

 

Otto Dix (1891-1969), the German artist, was fascinated with war and death and said he enlisted during the First World War because he wanted to....“experience all the ghastly bottomless depths of life for myself; it's for that reason that I went to war....”  The war was the defining and formative event of his life and would give form to his work.  After the war, he moved back to Dresden where he had previously studied art, and founded the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in 1923.  His 1924 series of 50 etchings, Der Krieg (The War), includes some of the most harrowing images of the ravages of war in the history of art.  This is not prettified military fashion, no mere posturing--this is gruesomeness, and a certain unseemly glorying in the carnage, both of which come across equally in his work which becomes a carnival of the grotesque.  Mutilated bodies, all the caricatures of horror.  The idea that within the grotesqueries of his work is a more profound anti-war statement is, as The New Yorker says, “...debatable, given the that its rage is blended with relish.”  In 1939 he was arrested by the Nazis who used him as a poster boy for the decadence of Modern Art (they particularly disliked what they saw as an anti-war message).  Carnival of the grotesque indeed!

 


Mealtime in the Trench, from Der Krieg (1924)

 

The grotesque in art and literature is the moving away from idealized forms and conventions, to create instead the misshapen, ugly, and deformed.  The irregular, and ludicrous.  The word comes from the Italian grottesco, lit. "of a cave," and was originally used to describe paintings in this style found on the walls of Roman ruins (It. pittura grottesca).

 

Victor Hugo used the grotesque as counterpoint to the sublime and these pairs occur often in literature (Quasimodo and Esmeralda, Beauty and the Beast, Caliban and Miranda), and Hugo said, in his Preface to Cromwell, “...that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light.”  In Dix’s work there seems to be little sense of the sublime, and therein, we think, lies the difference.  Hugo continued in his Preface: "...the grotesque seems to be a halting-place, a mean term, a starting-point whence one rises toward the beautiful with a fresher and keener perception.  The salamander gives relief to the water-sprite; the gnome heightens the charm of the sylph."  Perhaps the Dix retrospective can serve merely to whet the appetite for the divine, and one can then wander off after the show in search of a sylph at the Metropolitan nearby!

 

The Dix show, which is the first retrospective of the artist's  work in the United States, also has work from his other periods--his portraits, and allegorical paintings. 

 

Visit: Otto Dix Retrospective, Neue Galerie

 

Wander off in search of a sylph: Metropolitan Museum

 

Tags:    art  literature  war

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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