|Portrait of a woman by Otto Dix|
Otto Dix is one of the better known painters of the era, and the painting above is estimated to be worth about ten million dollars.
Dix was part of an art movement called the "Neue Sachlichkeit" or "New Objectivity." He belonged to the "verists" subgroup of this movement:
The verists' vehement form of realism emphasized the ugly and sordid. Their art was raw, provocative, and harshly satirical. George Grosz and Otto Dix are considered the most important of the verists.
The problem is that the other competing art movements, at least in Central Europe, were equally unappealing. You had the Dada movement, which took the nihilist line of destroying everything in the belief that something better would appear afterwards:
This dissolution was the ultimate in everything that Dada represented, philosophically and morally; everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in it customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape, the screw, like man himself, set on its way towards new functions which could only be known after the total negation of everything that had existed before. Until then: riot destruction, defiance, confusion. The role of chance, not as an extension of the scope of art, but as a principle of dissolution and anarchy. In art, anti-art.Note the aim of "the total negation of everything that had existed before" - this I take to be an expression of nihilism.
And then you had futurism, which was also committed to destroying traditional Europe, particularly "closed and predetermined forms" (which suggests a belief in the autonomous, self-determining individual "liberated" from whatever is predetermined):
The Futurist programme was based on the refusal of all closed and predetermined forms, on the exigency of a constant renewal of the arts, and the affirmation of the individual’s creative mind above all social hierarchy.
In their manifestos of 1909 to 1913 the Futurists celebrated the dynamism of great cities, the energy and destructive force of modern inventions. The hectic, deafening chaos of a mechanized world would destroy the old morality, the old society, the outmoded human product. They saw the cycle of death and rebirth repeated in men's entanglement with the machine, with electric power and kinetic force.
I've written recently about how liberal modernity bases itself, in part, on a certain understanding of human individuality, namely a belief that the creative unfolding of self is best achieved when the individual is detached from natural forms of human community such as the family, ethny and nation. It is possible that this was part of the futurists' "affirmation of individual's creative mind above all social hierarchy."
There were Australian artists who looked on in dismay at what was happening in the Old World. Australian art was still in a golden age, particularly when it came to landscapes:
|Hans Heysen, Droving into the light|
Finally, back to Otto Dix. It is sometimes said that the paintings of Otto Dix were the product of his traumatic experiences in the First World War. But there is evidence that Dix was a certain kind of nihilist prior to this. His thought shows the influence of both realist and vitalist forms of nihilism. Eugene Rose described realist nihilism this way:
He is the believer, in a word, in the "nothing-but," in the reduction of everything men have considered "higher," the things of the mind and spirit, to the lower or "basic": matter, sensation, the physical...the Realist world-view seems perfectly clear...in place of vague "higher values" naked materialism and self-interest.
Dix claimed later in life that he volunteered for service in WWI because he wanted to experience violence and death close at hand, because "I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself." We learn that:
Dix himself took a perverse pleasure in the events unfolding around him. Olaf Peter relates how Dix would often appal his friends by providing a “detailed description of the pleasurable sensation to be had when bayoneting an enemy to death.”
For a time, too, it seems that Dix was influenced by a vitalist nihilism:
Dix's worldview was deeply influenced by Nietzsche and the vitalism in life's 'will to power'. He, like the majority of his contemporaries, saw World War I as an opportunity to achieve both personal and national greatness through struggle and battle. In this spirit Dix intentionally signed-up with the German Army to fight, to experience life and action as it happened.
But the war was not transforming in the way that "struggle and battle" was supposed to achieve:
He was embittered and disappointed that the war, in which he and many others of his generation had placed such great hopes of vital change, had altered neither men nor their environment.
I've set all this out because when you look at the timing of European decline it becomes clear that a certain nihilism amongst the intelligentsia was prominent even before WWI (it may even have been part of the push toward war).
Have a look at the Otto Dix painting again. That is the disfigured soul of Otto Dix looking at you, a man charged with the cultural leadership of Europe in the early decades of the 1900s.