I return again to Germany between her wars. World War I may have had more influence on art than any other war in modern history, both in terms of artists whose careers were snuffed out long before their flame could reach its brilliant peak, and in terms of artists whose work was informed and forever changed by the incredible havoc they had lived through. Dix was a survivor. He survived the trenches of World War I and he survived the destruction of much of his life’s work by the Nazis in World War II. Like so many of his artist brethren, he was officially declared depraved and decadent.
His friendships were deep and interesting. Here is a picture of the German photographer Hugo Erfurth. The two men were each a great influence on the other. Over time, Dix made many pictures of the photographer and his family as well as the dog.
This portrait of the psychiatrist Fritz Perls is also an indicator of Dix’s status. Perls was one of the originators of Gestalt therapy, and an important man in his day. You may (or may not) be interested to know that Perls is the originator of the therapeutic technique known as “the Empty Chair” used by Clint Eastwood in his speech at the Republican Convention. Really. Look it up.
Dix was not happy with the trend of life in the Weimar Republic. He would not have been Liza Minelli’s friend. This was a terrible time in Germany financially and many people turned to what we would now think of as the Cabaret life to drown their troubles in drink and debauchery. Dix created pictures meant to stress the dehumanizing aspects of his society, waggling his paint brushes at the trafficking in human flesh and the terrible, bizarre, Weimar phenomenon known as the “lust murder.”
His strongest work arose from his struggle to come to terms with the war he’d been foolish enough to live through. His whole life was plagued with dreams of that war, of crawling through houses terrified that someone was after him, that the structures would bury him in rubble. He came to see himself in some ways as a creature formed entirely by the forces of war. His Self Portrait as Mars reflects this struggle. (It is one of the five reproductions that actually hangs in my office.)
His painting Trench is powerful and amazing. It was so disturbing, in fact, that the museum that featured it felt it had to hide the painting behind a curtain. The city of Cologne actually cancelled the purchase of the painting and the director of the museum that had sought to acquire the work was forced to resign. Like Picasso’s Guernica, this is a painting that either hits you or it doesn’t. For me it is revelatory.
Dix managed to survive the Nazis by quite a few years, dying in Germany in 1969. He spent most of his years after World War II painting religious allegory and anti-war pictures. He lived through one of the most tumultuous and difficult times in history yet managed somehow to spend almost all of it doing exactly what he wanted.
On the other hand, the bad dreams never really went away.