Radio 3 Talk on Otto Dix’s series of etchings, "Der Krieg" / by Rich Hobbs

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

Singer Sargent.

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

in remembrance.

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.