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The terrifying and beautiful inner emigration of Otto Dix

December, 2010

Matthew Signer, 18, never thought he’d experience a sense of awe after an exhibition highlighting the ugliness of the Roaring ‘20s.

“The advertisement for the exhibition said it was ‘terrifying and beautiful,’ and I thought this was just a catchy tagline to get me to go,” Signer says. But he adds: “Now that I have been to the exhibition, I really do feel that ‘terrifying and beautiful’ is the best description for Dix’s works.”

The exhibition begins with stark, colourless etchings, illustrating his time in the trenches during the First World War. The 50 etchings show the horrific reality of war, and Dix described them as “exorcisms” of his haunted past.

“After the war, Dix saw life without colour,” says Anne Grace, modern art curator at the Musée des Beaux Arts.

Museum-goers enter several rooms that explode with works created during the 1920s, portraying prostitutes and war amputees who had been reduced to begging on the streets.

“Brutally honest” portraits of life during the ’20s focused on women. At right, Dix exorcised his war demons by creating without colour. Photos courtesy of the Musée des Beaux Arts

“His portraits show a brutally honest depiction of life at the time, especially the women, who are revealed in all of their humanity,” Grace says.

Although Dix’s work focused mainly on street life in Germany, especially Berlin, he is also known for commissioned portraits. “Our museum has a special link with Dix’s work,” Grace says; one of the commissioned portraits is part of the museum’s permanent collection. The portrait of Dix’s lawyer, Hugo Simons, was commissioned by Simons after he defended Dix in a case in which the artist was refused payment by a patron (Simons pleaded on the ground of artistic expression, and won). As the Nazis came into power in the ’30s, Simons, who was Jewish, fled with his family to Canada.

“Among the few possessions he fled with was this portrait,” Grace says.

Viewers are then transported into a completely different world, Dix’s landscapes, painted during the time his family moved to the German countryside because of the Nazi regime.

“Many of Dix’s most important works were destroyed by the Nazis because they were considered degenerate,” Grace says. Dix was fired from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy.

Despite the seemingly harmless impression the landscapes initially have on its viewers, there is a deeper, more disturbing atmosphere that reflected Dix’s criticism of the Nazi regime.

The final portion of the exhibition focuses on Dix’s personal life, displaying the many letters he exchanged with Simons, as well as photographs of the painter with his family and children. Dix’s family immigrated to Canada during the Second World War, and upon arrival attempted to salvage many of his works.

But Dix did not immigrate, saying: “I have a stable full of paintings, how could I flee with all those works?”

Among his violent images, one of the final paintings in the exhibition is a family portrait. It is the only one that depicts humanity with tenderness and warmth.

“I felt like the terrifying world illustrated by Otto Dix was actually more beautiful and purer than the world in which we live,” Signer says.

The Otto Dix exhibition ends January 2.



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