Standing on the front at Bexhill-on-Sea looking out over the English Channel,
you can’t really imagine the flood-tides of European History and Culture
breaking and crashing on the groynes and pebble beaches before you. But turn
round and you’ll see the de la Warr Pavilion, possibly the first and certainly
one of the finest Modernist Buildings in Britain. Commissioned by the
socialist 9th Earl de la Warr in 1935 to be, I quote, "simple in design and
suitable for a holiday resort in the South of England", this sleek, white, steel-
and-concrete monument to sunlight and fresh sea-breezes re-opened in 2005
after extensive restoration, as a show case for contemporary or, to use the stale old
vernacular, "Modern" art.
Another of Bexhill’s claims to fame, which would have earned the town a
place in infamy had History run its course differently, is that it happened to be
one of the proposed landing beaches for Operation Sealion, the Nazis’ aborted
plan for a seaborne invasion of Southern England in 1940. And had Bexhill
become Hitler’s Omaha Beach, you can’t help wondering what might have
befallen the de la Warr Pavilion.
I reckon it would have been fine. Behind their championing of folklore and
kitsch, twinned to their demonisation of what they called "degenerate" art, the
Nazis were as much suckers for the flowing, uncluttered lines of Modernism
as anyone else, whether in Speer’s architecture, Hugo Boss’s designs for the
uniforms worn by the SS or all those beautiful fighter planes where the sweaty
Modernist dreams of fascists and fascist fellow-travellers like Marinetti and
Wyndham-Lewis became metal flesh.
But of one thing you can be sure. Under whatever kind of Kultur-Gauleiter
that might have ended up in charge of the Arts in Southern England in this
alternative History, the de la Warr Pavilion would not be marking the
hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War by exhibiting 19
plates from Otto Dix’s 1924 series of etchings, "Der Krieg".
Dix, along with Georg Grosz, was one of the leading Modernist artists in post-
Great War Germany; a star of Dada, the Expressionist and then the Neue
Sachlichkeit or "New Objectivity" schools of art which followed each other in
rapid succession as they sought to both interrogate and inculpate the fatal
contradications of the Weimar Republic. But his was a very different kind of
Modernism, exactly the kind that the Nazis defined as "degenerate". Dix’s
paintings "The Trench" & "War Cripples" were both displayed at the
notorious state- sponsored 1937 Munich exhibition of Degenerate Art - along
with work by Max Beckman, Grosz, Chagall, Max Ernst, Mondrian, Paul Klee
and many others - and afterwards burned.
And it wasn’t just the Nazis who responded badly to Dix’s output. Fourteen
years before it was thrown on a bonfire, "The Trench" was displayed in the
Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne behind a curtain to protect unsuspecting
passers-by from accidentally viewing its depiction of dismembered and
decomposing soldiers’ bodies. Then, in 1925 the mayor of Cologne Konrad
Adenauer, later the architect of the post-Second World War German Federal
Republic, cancelled the payment to purchase Dix’s painting, and forced the
director of the Wallraf-Richartz to resign for trying to buy it in the first place.
As for Dix, having survived the wrath of the Nazis by keeping his head down
and restricting himself to painting landscapes, after the Second World War he
settled down in Dresden in the German Democratic Republic, far away from
Adenauer, although by the time he died in 1969 he was being claimed by both
Germanies. But by then, of course, Modernism was old hat and therefore
much safer to handle.
Back in Bexhill, the de la Warr show does Dix proud. The big, bright, airy
enormity of the Pavilion’s exhibition space, dimmed to exclude sunlight
presumably to conserve the displayed artifacts, also serves to dwarf the 19
etchings, each not much larger than A4, but in precisely the right way. Seeing
them like this, in the gloom, the images in Der Krieg become even more
claustrophobic, just like being stuck in a trench, eating your lunch among your
comrades’ rotting corpses in Plate 13, "Mealtime in the Trenches" or crammed
absurdly tightly into the space available, like in Plate 12, "Stormtroops
advancing under a gas attack". Even the bodies of the living soldiers seem to
be collapsing in on themselves: these warriors are short, stumpy men with
foreshortened limbs and round, puggy faces. In fact, there’s more than just a
hint of the caricatural, even the cartoonish about Dix’s soldiers, while he also
continually deploys overdrawing. This is one of the defining tricks of
Modernism, that transgressive line that breaks all the rules by breaking across
other lines drawn or etched in pursuit of the purpose of all visual art hitherto,
which was to capture reality. This trick is also used brilliantly by the
cartoonists Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman, because breaking the rules of
realism, of reality, is the only real way of getting to the truth.
And the truth was what Dix was after, after a fashion. Self-consciously based
on Goya’s series of etchings "The Disasters of War", and often as difficult to
look at as many of Goya’s images of the atrocities wrought in the Peninsular
War over a century previously, "Der Krieg" is, on one level, simply a record
of Dix’s own experiences as a soldier, as a machine-gunner in the trenches.
This, after all, was what they meant by New Objectivism. As Dix himself
wrote in his diary in 1924, the year he etched "Der Krieg", "I am neither
political nor tendentious nor pacifistic nor moralising, nor anything else. Nor
do I paint in a symbolic Frenchified way - I am neither pro nor contra."
Whether you believe that or not, in itself those words marked a change in Dix,
a conversion to the supposed objectivity of Modernism by the young man who
ten years earlier had enthusiastically volunteered to fight in the Great War,
swept along in a wave of patriotism, and whose actions earned him an Iron
Cross in 1918.
One must assume that that earlier Otto Dix was more of a Romantic than any
kind of Modernist. The Great War was also the last great Romantic war,
waged between Kings and Emperors who inhabited faux-medieval courts
surrounded by courtiers wearing plumed helmets and archaic kinds of armour.
However we may view the war in retrospect, when it began it clearly appealed
enormously to whatever Romantic compulsion made millions of young men
across Europe volunteer for death or glory in defence of their homelands.
Indeed, Gavrilo Princip, whose murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked
off the whole thing and resulted not just in the hecatombs of the Western Front
but also the destruction of three great European Empires, is almost a cookie-
cutter example of European Romanticism: Goethe’s sorrowful young Werther
via the Romantic template of terrorism devised by the anarchist Mikhail
Bakunin, who was, co-incidentally, Wagner’s original model for Siegfried in
The Ring Cycle. This is Romanticism as wistful death cult, of blood, soil and
glory, dying young whether as Werther, Keats, a Shropshire lad or the friend
of J.M.Barrie’s who leapt from the deck of the sinking Lusitania, torpedoed by
a German U-Boat in 1915, quoting Peter Pan as he yelled out "To die will be
an awfully big adventure".
The reality, of course, is not Romantic. The patriotic Romanticism that fuelled
the beginnings of the Great War got the blood and the soil in spades, but little
glory. A medieval tournament between chivalric royal houses was waged
industrially, with industrial quantities of carnage, cheered on by arch-
Modernists like the Vortecist Wyndham-Lewis and the Futurist Marinetti as
the apotheosis of the Machine.
And Princip’s own death was equally unromantic. Too young to be executed
in 1914, he died in April 1918 in Terezin prison - later, under the Nazis, the
notorious Theresienstadt concentration camp - of skeletal tuberculosis,
reduced thanks to his rotting bones to weighing little more than 6 stone. Dix
would have produced a perfect portrait of the young man whose Romantic
yearnings kicked off the terrible, chaotic birth of the Modern and the
totalitarian necrocracies that thereafter blighted Europe for most of the 20th
Century. Though remember that despite claiming to base themselves in
objective scientific truth - though eugenics and dialectical materialism are
equally, murderously bogus - both the Nazis and the Marxist Soviets had their
roots in the German Romanticism of the 1820s.
Getting back to Dix’s etchings in "Der Krieg", there’s another alternative
history. In this one, it’s not the Nazis invading England via Bexhill-on-Sea,
but the Germans winning the Great War; the version of events where the
Spring Offensive of 1918, when Dix won his Iron Cross, worked.
But in those circumstances would he still have gone on to feel compelled, six
years later, to etch this terrifying record of the horrors of war?
There’s a pretty good chance he would, though the effects would be entirely
different. Despite Dix’s claims to Modernist Objectivity, "The Trench", "Der
Krieg" and his other work from the Weimar period produced the reaction they
did because their objectivity was, in itself, a subjective indictment of post-
Great War Germany. The point is rammed home if you compare two pictures
on identical subjects, one by Dix and the other by the society portraitist John
Sargent’s famous painting "Gassed" was first exhibited in 1919, having been
commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee in July 1918, four
months before the Armistice. It was voted painting of the year by the Royal
Academy, and depicts a crocodile of blindfolded men, victims of a gas attack,
being led through a flat, almost twilit landscape seething with their wounded,
blinded comrades. In the same way as Dix owed a debt to Goya, "Gassed"
references Peter Breugel’s 1568 painting "The Parable of the Blind", though it
also has a great deal in common, both in composition and execution, with one
of those late Pre- Raphaelite, achingly Romantic Burne-Jones’ paintings of a line of languid,
torpid young women, half in love with easeful death. While it effectively
evokes the horror and pity of war, you can’t imagine this painting being
produced by the losing side. It’s also over twenty feet wide.
Dix’s third plate from Der Krieg, "Gas Victims - Templeux-la-Fosse", on the
other hand, is about a foot and a bit wide. The gas victims are, once more,
Dix’s typical, stumpy caricatures, but this time their faces are blackened by
lack of oxygen into unrecognisability as being even human. Two medical
orderlies stand nonchalantly beside the prone ranks of wounded men.
For the record, two of the more famous gas victims of the Great War were
Ford Madox Ford, one of the most prominent cheerleaders of literary
Modernism, and Adolf Hitler.
But while it’s just about possible to imagine Dix’s "Gas Victims" being
produced by the winners, it would have been as part of the remembrance, of
the pity as much as the horror of war. In Britain, thanks to Wilfred Owen,
Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and others, critical responses to how the war
had been waged had their vanguard in poetry. This poetry, moreover, rapidly
eclipsed the earlier, mawkish jingoism of Rupert Brook, who’d died on his
way to Gallipoli as a result of a mosquito biting his lip without him seeing a
shot fired in anger. Remembered horror became the poetic pity of
remembrance, and the British could be united in that remembrance because,
having won, they had the luxury of room enough to respond this way. The
Germans, having lost, hardly had enough room to remember, let along engage
Sargent’s "Gassed" now hangs in the Imperial War Museum. In post-Great
War Germany, if you’d given a museum a name like that you could guarantee
the opening ceremony would end in a shoot out between the FreiKorps and the
Commies. When Weimar finally got round to building its National Monument
of Commemoration at the Tannenberg Memorial in East Prussia, unlike the
understatement of London’s Cenotaph it seemed to yearn for a defiant if
wholly inappropriate triumphalism: it was on the site of a German Victory; it
was enormous, based on a Teutonic Knights’ Castle; at the opening ceremony
in 1927 President Hindenburg, in full military uniform, made no apology and
expressed no regrets for the war; most significantly, no Jews or Socialist or
Communist deputies were invited.
There was no collective remembrance because there was no German
consensus on their defeat. The founding myth of the Nazis was that Germany
had been "stabbed in the back" by traitors at home rather than defeated in the
field. There was, therefore, nothing ignoble in the war at all, despite its
objective horrors and the pity therein. So even the act of remembering, like
Otto Dix did, was already in the worst possible taste; and thereafter
remembering inevitably became an indictment of Weimar’s innate decadence
in refusing to remember. And then the remembering rebounded on the artists
who, in exposing Weimar’s decadence, were thereafter denounced by the
Nazis, who hated Weimar too, as themselves degenerate.
Which is why Der Krieg still resonates so powerfully. It’s less about the Great
War itself than its aftermath, and you cannot and should not unpick the
stitches tying them together. After all, while Dix claimed merely to be
remembering The War and its unimaginable horrors, the Nazis’ whole point
was to re-enact them.