In the exhibition of work by Otto Dix that opened this week at Neue Galerie, themes of war and sexuality literally fill the air. Memory of the Halls of Mirrors in Brussels (1920), a Dadaist painting of a leering officer and a prostitute, is suffused with Guerlain perfume and soundtracked to 1920s jazz. In the room containing Dix's etchings inspired by the first World War, there's a faint, loamy smell; for this, Neue's scent specialist sniffed out a special combination of grass and earth. Crickets chirp in the background.
RECLINING WOMAN ON A LEOPARD SKIN, 1927. COURTESY NEUE GALERIE
These effects would be a gimmick elsewhere, but it works for Neue, a museum of early 20 Century Austrian and German art that is concerned with atmosphere almost as much as art itself. Example: the recreation of Viennese dining in the museum's Café Sabarsky, or reproductions of Josef Hoffman and Dagobert Peche textiles in the museum's design shop.
The presentation suits Dix as well, in the first solo museum show of his work in North America. Dix famously said that he had to experience war first-hand in order to depict it. If the added scents and sounds alone do not quite bring viewers to the front-lines, or the collapsed geometry of the Federico de Vera-designed entryway-with its walls angling inward, bunker-like before opening into what exhibition organizer Olaf Peters calls "the war room"—they make the experience of viewing Dix's war portfolio that much richer, and unshakeable.
The exhibition of more than 100 artworks is based on portfolios of Dix's paintings and etchings, with the exception of a few drawings that address themes of war, sexuality, portraiture and allegory. Issues of how to deal with men returning home from the war, alive but physically damaged, had been rarely discussed in the open until the publication of Ernst Friedrich's book of photographs Krieg dem Krieg! (War against War!) and Dix's war portfolio, both in 1923. One of the drawings in the portfolio, Prostitute and War Wounded (1923), was a sensation when it was first published in a German journal for its depiction of a veteran with his face carved and puckered into a lopsided smile. Next to him, the prostitute (skeletally thin, bored) stares off to the side, also looking worse for the wear.
Art critics have bestowed new titles and meaning on this work, including The Two Victims of Capitalism and The Venus of the Capitalist Age, said Peters, a modern art history and theory professor at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg.
"Otto Dix was not really an anti-war painter, but there was a reception from the leftist side of the political spectrum that ... instrumentalized him as an anti-war painter," Peters says. "The right-wing political parties were impressed by his depictions and found their own experiences in his art works. You have a favored reception from the left and the right—which indicates how [ambiguous] his work is."
The painter himself said he was neither for war nor against war. Instead he provided a kind of modified reportage, Peters said, that is "a reflection of war ... filtered through experience and memories but also reflected through the basis of [Dix's] knowledge of art history."
Prostitute and War Wounded, with its intertwining war and sex, also provides a link to the upstairs gallery space, which are filled with Dix's portraits.
So often the women in Dix's work here are prostitutes or objectified in some other way, including the raw-edged female subject of Prostitute and War Wounded and her counterpart in Memory of the Halls of Mirrors in Brussels. The prostitute's naked body is further invaded by the mirrors that reflect her genitals and imagined scenes of her, and by the officer who clutches her breasts in the foreground.
But in the main room of portraits—some of Dix's best-known, culled from American collections, including Dr. Mayer-Hermann (1926), a laryngologist as round as the convex mirror behind him, borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art in New York—it is a woman that commands power. The namesake figure in Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber (1925) is not the subject of the viewer's gaze so much as the figure demands that you look. As painted by Dix, the cabaret dancer and actress Berber is glossed in blood-red shades from her hair to her dress to the background, and surrounded by a fiery yellow glow that only enhances the devilish power of the portrait.
Among the many portraits are also a landscape and a few still-lifes that show him playing with the styles and techniques of the old masters, such as painting on wood instead of canvas. These other works include the more political, if veiled, paintings he made during the Third Reich. In a move of quiet (or, the more critical could call it passive) protest, Dix painted a Jewish cemetery into a German landscape in 1935's Jewish Cemetery of Randegg in Winter. Another painting during that period, from 1939, shows Saint Christophorus carrying the child Jesus across a river. According to Peters, that was meant to send a message to viewers that we, too, will get through this dark period in history.
ABOVE: PORTRAIT OF THE LARYNGOLOGIST DR. MAYER-HERMANN, 1926
OTTO DIX IS OPEN THROUGH AUGUST 20. THE NEUE GALERIE IS LOCATED AT 1048 FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK.