Sunday, November 10, 2013

A painting best left hidden?

Several paintings lost in the aftermath of WWII have been found hidden in an apartment in Munich. One of them is interesting for the wrong reasons. Painted by the German Otto Dix it is a reminder of how corrupt European high art was in the early 1900s. It is meant to be a portrait of a woman:

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 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.


  1. Well, of course, the Nazis (though not, so far as I am aware, actually imprisoning Otto Dix) banned paintings of Dix's as constituting "degenerate art" (Entartate Kunst). This is a fact that should make us hesitate before we airily throw around terms like "nihilism" and "disfigured soul".

    I really don't understand the point of this post. Is the author meaning that Dix really should have been banned? If he is meaning this, then how is he different from the likes of Goebbels, except insofar as Goebbels did have the power to make his aversions into national policy, and Mr. Richardson doesn't?

    1. James,

      I did not airily throw around the term nihilist. I quoted Eugene Rose to define the term "realist nihilism" and then I quoted Otto Dix himself to show how he fitted into this definition.

      The point of the post was explained at the end. It is to make it clear that European intellectuals went through a period of crisis even prior to the First World War.

      Would I have wanted Otto Dix banned? No, but nor would I have wanted him to rise to prominence as an artist. If the European intelligentsia had been in better health, then Otto Dix would simply be unknown to us today.

      Finally, let me make something clear. The problem with Otto Dix as an artist is not just a matter of style or technique or skill. The problem goes deeper than this to his values and to his understanding of the world.

      If a group of artists tell you that they want to completely dissolve your society and its traditions, if they write about the total negation of everything that has gone before, and if your job is to protect what is good within your community and to preserve your larger tradition, then what do you do?

      Do you really not recognise a threat? Would you not want that group of artists to fade away into obscurity, whilst other artists prosper?

    2. "the Nazis (though not, so far as I am aware, actually imprisoning Otto Dix) banned paintings of Dix's as constituting "degenerate art" (Entartate Kunst). "

      And yet they were brothers under the skin! Their views seem to have been very close. Only that the Nazis liked good-looking art.

    3. Simon, good point. Otto Dix and the Nazis shared ideas about the "will to power" and the meaningfulness of war and struggle.

    4. James: Hitler built the Autobahn. Should the Germans rip that up too?

      Simon: The entire point of this post is that art is a window into the soul of the one who makes it, but you would have us believe that art says nothing about the one who approves (or disapproves) of it? If the acceptance of this painting tells us something profound about early 20th century Europe, then the rejection of this painting tells us something equally profound about 1930's Germany.

  2. The Nazis got some things right. Quite a fair bit, actually.

    Of course, they didn't get everything right.

    1. Anon, Hitler did more to damage the West than just about anybody. The point is, though, that just because a Nazi thought something was wrong, doesn't then make it right. That's not the test of whether a thing is true or not. We have to judge for ourselves.

      Lenin, for instance, made some comments suggesting that women should not be promiscuous. Should we therefore endorse promiscuity on the basis that Lenin was a bad person? Do we simply do the opposite of everything that Stalin did? What if Stalin was in favour of healthy birth rates for Russia? Does that mean we are against women having larger families?

      That's where I think James is wrong. I share his disdain for the Nazis, but I'm not going to be so reactive that the test of truth becomes whether or not the Nazis believed in some particular thing.

  3. This may be pedantic, but I wouldn't apply the term "nihilist" to men who destroy because they believe something better will emerge from the rubble. A nihilist thinks that words like better and worse mean nothing, and that moral and aesthetic values do not exist. Men who believe in creative destruction do believe in value, and they also profess a revolutionary metaphysics of history that is not nihilistic.

    I think your general point is correct, however. There is something wrong with a society that celebrates ugliness. It is one thing to admit that much in life is ugly and sordid, and it is another thing to be attracted to the ugly and the sordid, and to work to increase the sum of ugliness and sordidness on earth. The later attitude is sometimes a consequence of childish petulance. Since all of life is not, and cannot be, a bed of roses, then all of life ought to be a stinking gutter. And among artists the celebration of ugliness is in many cases a rationalization of a simple lack of talent. I don't know if Dix could draw if he chose to do so, but the drawing you reproduce strongly suggest a simple lack of skill.

    1. JMSmith, you might be right when it comes to how we define nihilism. I'll have to think about it. What you say is true as a matter of logic, that you could in theory believe in total negation because you genuinely held that a society based on true values could then emerge. I suspect in practice, though, that many people drawn to "total negation" were strongly influenced by a sense of nihilism.

      On the point of skill, I'd agree with you that many modern "performance artists" wouldn't have the skill to produce great painting even if they wanted to. But I'm not sure that's true of the leading modernists of the early 1900s. I think it's possible that some people look at their paintings not in terms of the underlying philosophy of life, but simply in terms of aesthetics, i.e. of composition, style and originality, and find things to admire. If you're willing to forget what these artists were trying to achieve (the dissolution of the Western tradition) then maybe you can just see the paintings as humorously different painting styles.

    2. "I don't know if Dix could draw if he chose to do so, but the drawing you reproduce strongly suggest a simple lack of skill."

      Judging from some of his other work, he had considerable technical ability. You need it to produce something so strikingly and confidently ugly. No child or student would produce such a work.

      Lucian Freud had tremendous mastery of the human figure, but he used it to make his figures as ugly and repellent as possible. I can only interpret such a choice as the product of a profound hatred and contempt for the human body as it is. Probably, like many revolutionaries, Lucian Freud and Dix "loved humanity," but saw no beauty in real, flesh-and-blood humans.

  4. That painting of the 'woman' looks like ( the part-Jewish ) Hitler in drag.

  5. You're not going to like me for saying this, but the Dix is better than the Heysen. The latter is bordering on kitsch. I've had some email conversations on this with Jim Kalb. The taste for sentimentality on evidence in praise songs, tacky madonnas, Thomas Kinkade etc. is evidence of how modernity has fundamentally disordered the conservative soul. He says it is likely because we lack authoritative symbols of the transcendent.

    Of course, I agree that Dix, however skilled, is nasty and I prefer not to look at any of his work more than I have to. But there is more than one way to be corrupt.

    1. Thursday,

      Heysen's painting does more than give a symbol of the transcendent, it skilfully imparts a particular experience of it.

      Thursday, we're really at odds here, because I suspect that the Western soul is gradually being cut off from its natural and historic sources of spiritual expression, one of which is an unusually deep sense of connection to nature. This was once a very major part of Western art and culture, but we seem now to be losing it.

    2. I suspect you are seeing kitsch in that tiny thumbnail because so many kitschy artists have attempted to imitate Dix. Look at larger images if you can find them. A scan of a watercolor is next to worthless if you can't see the texture of the stains on the paper.

      A kitschy artist tries to paint "transcendence" and fails. Either he doesn't know any instance of transcendence to paint, knows one but lacks the skill to convey it, or else simply doesn't care. In all cases, the kitschy artist has to resort to looting cultural symbols and reworking them as cliches to cover for the fact that he can't paint anything *in particular.*

      The dramatic swell in a throwaway movie soundtrack is kitsch, but it wasn't when Wagner first used it for a particular transcendent moment in *The Ring*. The light in one of Kinkaid's "no-places" is kitsch, but it wasn't when Heysen saw it shining through particular gum trees in a particular place in Australia, and humbly put his genius in the service of the particular transcendence he knew at that time and place.

    3. Heysen's painting does more than give a symbol of the transcendent, it skilfully imparts a particular experience of it.

      No, it's not a good painting and the reason is because Heysen's soul is corrupt. The problems go deeper than you think.

    4. The corrupted soul sees kitsch everywhere.

  6. The Moderist abandonment of God is readily apparent in Dix's art and philosophy.

    There's definitely sentimentality in the Heysen piece, but I'd take that any day over the ugly degenerate 'art' that was de rigueur for the majority of the 20th century.

  7. I see nothing wrong with Hans Heysen, Droving into the light, but Portrait of a woman by Otto Dix makes me angry. That's a nice hat. That woman and others like her were trying to look their best. Artists should honor that will to beauty, not use their art as a weapon against it.

  8. It's undeniable: a society whose artists produce work like Dix's harbors a dangerous sickness, and the work of such artists spread the disease.

    (And since the Nazis have already been brought up: I don't think they were right about much, but they were bang-on about art. Arno Breker was an awesome genius. Leni Riefenstahl was a genius. Joseph Goebbels was a propaganda / performance art genius. And so on. The National Socialists knew what they were talking about on this topic.)

    I don't agree with the condemnation of Futurism though. I think there was a lot of good in that, mixed with the bad. I think it was a necessary and mostly hopeful attempt to come to terms with new realities and materials. It had good and bad "children". I think Art Deco was genuinely great (though it doesn't work equally well for absolutely everything), and could not have arisen in the same way without futurism.

    You should definitely mention the Slav Epic, a cycle of 20 large canvases painted by Czech Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha between 1910 and 1928. Look at his awesome and wholly healthy work; does it confirm or conflict with your claim that "the other competing art movements, at least in Central Europe, were equally unappealing." I think it annihilates it.

    Artists who are basically corrupt and destructive have over-used the indulgence that people are inclined to give prototypes. But there is such a thing as a prototype, and if it's capable of giving rise to such worthy mature forms, then it merits indulgence.

    Useful and healthy novelty should not raise art above that of genuinely great work in an older or anachronistic style, though.

    For example: John William Waterhouse, who I would say is the best painter the English race has produced, and who built on the work of the also-great Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. (You could not get sounder foundations than theirs. Who cares what is "out of date" if it is great!?)

    Shouldn't you mention Williams and other popular and excellent artists when you are using art to condemn the spirit of European Man in that age? There was a lot of very good and popular work being done then. It was later pushed into the darkness by critics and other artists following a corrupt course, but we don't have to agree with them. We should not agree that what has been showed aside by cultural polluters has not passed "the test of time", nor should we overly elevate artists like Dix, because they have been useful for cultural destruction, and the market for high art has for a long time now been a market for cultural destruction.

    Yeah, you mentioned Hans Heysen. Good. But it wasn't just a few nice artists in Australia looking at the comprehensive corruption of the Old World. That's a false picture.

    I think Evil and Good were duking it out in the art world, as in the diplomatic, political and eventually military spheres as rarely before or since.

    Unfortunately, evil won, hence the Russian Revolution, Bela Kun, the 1914-1918 unpleasantness, etc..

    And unfortunately evil was bound to win twice after Hitler took a lot of the most positive tendencies in Europe and harnessed them in service to his personal blood-thirsty madness, after which the white world had a choice of Hitler or Stalin, meaning a choice between Hell and Hell. And Hell won. (Specifically, a new form of Hell, Cultural Marxism, won.)

    But the good guys were in there swinging. They really were.

    1. Titus, thanks for an interesting comment. You're right that in the very early 1900s there was still a healthier current of art (both in fine art and classical music). It seems to have diminished greatly by about 1930, though.

  9. Great post, thanks Mr. Richardson.

    You wrote, "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."

    What do you think corrupted him? Do you believe it was autonomy theory itself? I'd be interested in seeing how you'd reconstruct the process from believing that one's own will is the highest good to believing that the highest good is the ugly and the sordid.