Whitehot Magazine

The Ugly Truth: Otto Dix’s Art by Donald Kuspit

Otto Dix, Longing, Self-Portrait, 1919, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany

By DONALD KUSPIT September, 2020

Ugliness has a power over us; we cannot treat it with indifference. It rouses our deep-set emotions and its horror lingers in the memory. My assumption is that the underlying source of ugliness is the emergence of powerful aggressive fantasies, well beyond those usually associated with normal levels of neurosis….Ugliness leads to powerful affective reactions, psychological crises…the individual feels shocked at the perception of chaos, disfigurement, and horror.

-- George Hagman, Aesthetic Experience (1)

But men not only destroy each other in vast quantities; they are also cruel to each other.  Unlike other animals, they are not content to let a defeated rival quit the fray without inflicting further injury.  Torture, mutilation and other barbarities have been practiced by men upon men since human history began; and many torturers have relished this exercise of arbitrary power. 

-- Anthony Storr, Human Destructiveness (2)

The defining experience of Otto Dix’s life was his service in the German Army during the First World War.  He was not drafted but volunteered, suggesting a certain eagerness to engage the enemy, perhaps the need for an enemy.  The scholar Dietrich Schubert writes that Dix “opened up emotionally to the war, developing a kind of craving for sensation,”(3) self-evident in his Self-Portrait as Soldier, painted in 1914, the year Dix volunteered for military service.  Dix’s head is shaved and his face supposedly “deformed by fever,” but what is most noteworthy about the painting is its bold, in-your-face expressionism, its feverish—certainly fervid, intense, even fierce--gestures.  Black and red gestures, some grandly sweeping, some anxiously tentative—some rough and ready, some smoothly controlled--are at odds, suggesting a conflict between red hot Eros and invasive Thanatos, that is, between a strong sex drive and an insidious death drive.  The black insinuates itself into the red in Dix’s shirt, but the red has a stronger, more insistent presence—a more driven quality.  There is more flagrant red than fatal black, suggesting that Dix, a young man in the prime of life—he was 23 when he volunteered for military service–was more driven by desire, passionately alive however much he was aware of death.  The point is made bizarrely clear by Longing (Self-Portrait), 1919, the year after he was discharged from military service.  A surrealist work en avant Surrealism, his gray face is excruciatingly distorted, his mouth open in a cry of despair, his lips passionately red with lust.  Frustrated sexual desire has become an image of morbid anguish.  Driven mad by frustration, Dix has become a monster to himself.  It is also the face of a soldier whose country has lost the war:  it is a face of inconsolable despair.

More pointedly, pre-war and post-war self-portraits suggest that Dix was a sexual predator—certainly obsessed with sex, as his works depicting sex murders strongly suggest.  In Scene II (Murder), 1922 the grotesquely distorted dead body of a woman—presumably a prostitute, as Dix’s Self-Portrait with Prostitutes, 1921 strongly suggests—is displayed on the floor, her wide-open vagina front and center in the work, its hairy grayness contrasting with her smooth white skin.  Her throat slit, she lays in a pool of blood, her right leg, with a black boot on its foot, raised on a rolled up white comforter.  As the neat, unused bed in the background makes clear, she was raped and murdered on the floor.  Her vagina is the first thing that meets our eyes:  implicitly an abyss, it signifies death.  It has been mutilated, torn open, viciously attacked—violated beyond repair.  It is the scene of the crime, and, from the point of view of the unconscious of the male murderer, a threat to his masculinity, indeed, a crime against his essential maleness, for it arouses castration anxiety, as Freud said.  Woman lacks a penis, and her vagina threatens man with the loss of his, perhaps because he fantasizes that it is a vagina dentata—that it has teeth that will bite off his penis—perhaps because he regards it as ugly compared to his beautiful penis, all the more beautiful when it is erect, proudly upright and idealized, another male fantasy.  He can lose his penis in her vagina—perhaps it is a Venus flytrap, his penis a fly it feeds on, consumes as cheap food.  And a prostitute feeds on many flies, she has an appetite for penises, she is insatiable and indiscriminate, any male victim will do, any dumb, needy man who will pay the price.  Noteworthily, the room pictured in Sex Murder, 1922 is the same room in which Dix lived in 1920, shortly after he was discharged from the German army.  Barely furnished and threadbare, it suggests his poverty and loneliness.  It also suggests that he is a sex murderer. (4) 

Otto Dix, Illusion Act (Illusionsakt), 1922, etching with drypoint on paper, 11 3/4 x 10 1/16 inches.

But the larger point is that a penis is not just a penis, but a phallus, a symbol of power, as the psychoanalyst Anthony Storr reminds us.  Losing his penis in a woman’s vagina, man loses his power—it wilts after it discharges, becomes limp as a rag, no longer a mighty weapon.  Enraged by the fact—the death of his penis—that he has become as powerless as the woman he overpowered, Dix’s murderer kills her and ruins her vagina--the seat of her sexuality--in a vicious act of ruthless vengeance.  Without her vagina, she has no power over him.  He probably went to her in the first place because he wanted love but got sex—or mistook sex for love--what else did he expect to get from a nameless prostitute, an instrument not a person?  Dix’s sex murder works convey deep hatred of woman:  they are consummately sadistic, more broadly, they show that Dix takes great pleasure in depicting suffering and death.   No joie de vivre in sexual intercourse, but rather a triumph of death.  Contempt for woman is a staple of Dix’s art.  As the spider woman in Illusion Act, 1922 shows, she can trap you in her web.  One has to kill her before she consumes one.  One must defend against her by destroying her.  Sexual intercourse with a woman, like the intercourse between men called war, is a fight to the death, with the winner taking nothing.   

The postwar German sex murderer—for all the sex murders Dix depicted occurred in Germany early in the 1920s, shortly after its defeat in the first world war—was probably a war veteran, as Dix was, a man who remained an aggressive soldier in spirit—defiantly aggressive, as if to deny that his country lost the war.  He failed it and it failed him, leaving him disillusioned and resentful.  Depressed, and perhaps with a sense of the futility of the war, and with that of the meaninglessness of life, and of the individual human being, dispensable in what has been called the mass murder of the war—before the second world war, another German war, the greatest loss of human life in any war occurred during the four years of the first world war—he probably went to the prostitute he murdered for consolation.  He had looked death in the eye, as the closeups of skulls and dead soldiers in his famous War series, 1924 show, and was lucky to be alive.  Dix had survived fight-to-the-death trench warfare and poison gas; in the War series he shows soldiers wearing gas masks and holding grenades as they attack the enemy—the spectator, for they are rushing at him, confronting the viewer with in-your-face menace.  But Dix had lost his manhood, and probably went to the prostitute to prove that he was still a man, that he could still fuck a woman even though he was fucked by the war. 

(It is worth noting that Hitler was a corporal during the war, and a hospitalized victim of a poison gas attack, said to have influenced his resentment and hatred of the allied forces, and leading him to paranoiacally see an enemy everywhere, and return to the battlefield to turn defeat into victory, as he initially did in the second world war.  Along with Goya’s Disasters of War, 1810-1820, Dix’s War prints are regarded as the greatest works of art dealing with the cruelty of war, and among the greatest prints ever made.  Paranoia is evident in both series of prints. Dix portrayed Hitler as Envy in his painting of the Seven Deadly Sins, 1937.  Noteworthily, Dix’s black and white Nude (For Francisco de Goya), 1926, a homage to a kindred artist and victim of war, depicts a monstrously ugly prostitute with claw-like fingers and a grimacing face, and her rather hairy black vagina in your face.  It is the face of death, as her face confirms.)

But it turned out that the prostitute fucked him, at least in his unconscious, which is why he had to kill her, consciously, as though to confirm that he was in control of the situation, not her.  She threatened him emotionally, as the enemy in the war threatened him physically, which is why she became the enemy and he had to go to war with her and kill her, why compulsive fucking became ruthless war—the proverbial battle between the sexes--in which he had to be the triumphant victor.  It was not only that her cunt symbolized castration, which is why it became a threat he had to cut to pieces, but it also  unconsciously reminded him of the fox holes in which he had to hide during the war and the craters on the ravaged landscape, as much the subject of the War series as the men who were trapped and died in them.  The destruction and rape of nature and the defeat and postwar rape of Germany—the excessive demands for reparations from the allies, which made its money worthless, all but bankrupting it--brought both to question:  it was an unprecedented existential crisis.  In a sense, this crisis, and with the total war that brought it about, was re-enacted on the body of the prostitute:  the murderer turned her body into a dead landscape, as cut up as the battlefield, and treated her as an enemy to be defeated as Germany was.  It was an act of tragic displacement.   

Otto Dix, Memory of the Halls of Mirrors in Brussels, 1920, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou.

Let us recall that the robust Amazon-like Germania—she holds a sword--is a 19th century symbol of Germany, along with the Valkyrie, virgins who chose the soldiers slain in war who were worthy of a place in Valhalla; I suggest that Dix’s vulnerable, weak, unchaste prostitute is her pathetic shadow, a 20th century loser rather than a 19th century victor.  Germany’s raison d’étre and the murderer’s raison d’étre—and Dix’s raison d’étre—were brought into question by its defeat at the beginning of the 20th century.  It seemed to deny her a future and mocked her past.  The murderous soldier, now a resentful victim of war, continues his war with the enemy, only now it is woman and the battlefield is her body.  She’s one of the spoils of war, but she’s also another victim of war, and of his war with himself, which is why he treats her with purgative brutality, her actual death a substitute for his imagined death, the death he expected on the battlefield, threatening him every moment.  Forcing her to fear and face death at his hands—to become conscious of and confront death, and above all to die in great pain--he unconsciously faces and enacts his own death.  She becomes his surrogate by way of his murderous action; he attacks her the way he was attacked on the battlefield.  He survived, she doesn’t; she’s a sacrifice to the god of war, in lieu of him.  Murdering her he relieves his death anxiety; the murder is in effect a catharsis.  The peculiar theatricality of the scene suggests as much:  the sex murder pictures are little theaters of the macabre absurd.  The prostitute is the default enemy, as woman tends to be in an unhappy man’s miserable life. 

Dix’s war veteran is as destructive as ever, only now he has become a criminal, a sexual predator and social pariah, suggesting that war is a criminal activity, and that murdering an anonymous prostitute is no different than murdering an anonymous enemy soldier, except that woman is weaker, puts up less of a fight.  For Dix, the murder of a prostitute is an act of social criticism as well as an expression of personal pathology.  By asserting his power, the murderer denies his impotence and social irrelevance, his despair that his masculine power failed to bring victory to Germany, and with that self-respect for him:  Germany’s defeat became his self-defeat.  But victorious in the war between the sexes, inflicting pain on the prostitute who promises pleasure, treating her with hatred rather than love, and with that condemning her to death, for she has become the enemy who must be exterminated because she promised more than she gave, he feels powerful and invincible, omnipotent if only for the brief moment in which he suddenly murders her.  Dix wounds her vagina, the way he was wounded in his neck during war, a symbolic castration, for the neck is an age-old symbol of the erect penis, and with that of phallic power, which the phallic woman has, as Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540 makes clear.  The prostitute may have no penis, but she has power over her male customer’s penis—she owns it when it is inside her--which makes her a phallic woman, at least during sexual intercourse.

Otto Dix, The Poet Iwar von Lücken, 1926, oil and tempera on canvas, 226 x 120 cm.

I am arguing that the paradox of the sex murder works is that they show man unconsciously identifying with the prostitute he murders.  He is the invisible presence in Dix’s picture, but he has left his mark on her body, confirming that he merged with her when he sexually possessed her.  Castrated by war, he has become the weaker sex, even as he acknowledges her power over him, which is why he visits a prostitute to confirm and re-affirm his power.  She becomes his helpless victim, and he displaces his sense of being a victim of war onto her, which is why for him sexual intercourse with an anonymous, alien woman is a fight to the death with an anonymous, alien enemy.  For the German sex murderer cruelty is a confirmation of his alienation from German society, more broadly the alienation and anomie—the sense of isolation and normlessness--inherent to modern life, as many psychologists and sociologists have argued, or, as the sociologist T. W. Adorno pithily put it, the indifference that is everywhere.  Dix’s portraits of isolated figures, particularly The Poet Iwar von Lücken, 1926, plaintively alone in his empty loft with a white rose to keep him company, and The Dancer Anita Berber, 1925, a “taboo-violating vamp, who devoured both men and women,” a cocaine addict who died before she was thirty, her brief appearance in Fritz Lang’s film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, her claim to fame.  She was amoral, criminal, and cruel, as the long feline-like fingernails, painted flaming red, in her flamboyant portrait suggest.  Cruelty is everywhere—is indifference cruelty?—for the love of power is everywhere, and she had power over men—the audience for whom she seductively danced--even as she treated them with indifference.  As Anthony Storr writes, “Cruelty is more closely linked with the pleasure of power than with the pleasure of sex; and those to whom it has the most appeal are those who have most felt themselves to be insulted and injured.”(5)            

Dix’s Sex Murder etching from his 1922 portfolio Death and Resurrection—he was a master etcher, cruelly cutting into the plate the way he cut to the quick of the scene, rendering it with exquisite care and decisive vigor, his amazing, uncompromising eye for detail giving it an expressive freshness—suggests that he cut into the plate the way the sex murderer cut into the vagina of the prostitute.  The same barbaric energy is evident in every one of his etchings.  It is especially violent in Sex Murderer (Self-Portrait), 1920, a work that makes it transparently clear that Dix identified with the sex murderer—not so unconsciously, but with conscious glee and enthusiasm.  Brandishing a knife in his left hand and holding a female leg in his right hand--an arm, cut off from a female body, blood pouring from the wound, appears above it—and grinning like a triumphant maniac, Dix fearlessly confronts the viewer, daring her to stop him from murdering her.  His teeth are bared, his eyes stare fiercely, and he wears a fashionable suit, white shirt, and tie.  Dix’s neatly dressed sex murderer—a gentleman killer--is no hardened criminal but a former soldier who can’t stop killing, indeed, who enjoyed the thrill of killing, as Dix supposedly said:  “what an indescribable feeling it was to thrust a bayonet into an enemy’s body.”(6)  And a knife into a woman, after knifing her with his penis.  War made murder habitual, an everyday event, and it made Dix’s art murderous. 

Otto Dix, Sex Murder, 1922.

He soul murdered (6) the people he portrayed in his later works, and he used the murderous method of collage—for it involves cutting up images and using bits and pieces of them to make art, as Dix did in his painting of The Skat Players, 1920, a work of art as wounded as the veterans playing cards. To cut images to pieces is to maliciously destroy them, indeed, to make war unto death against them,  savagely destroying them to make a savage art by salvaging the fragments and putting them together in a kind of picture puzzle—a puzzling picture, for they never form a seamless whole.  The result is a physically as well as expressively unsettling and unsettled work—one might say a work with psychosomatic problems, like the skat players:  an artistic puzzle with a puzzling, crippled body like that of the card players, all war veterans wounded almost to death in the first world war (the collage elements function as their prosthetic devices).  They’re certainly more distinguished and urbane—not to say more humanly and socially meaningful--than Cézanne’s boring rural Cardplayers, 1894-1895, mindlessly at peace with themselves rather than permanently damaged by war.  How the world and art had changed in a few short years!  Art had become more inventive—more in tune with the technological times and more socially engaged, attentive to city life, where history was being made, rather than stuck in the provinces, where, as Marx said, people are idiots.    

In 1920 Dix met Georg Grosz and, influenced by him and Dadaism, began using collage elements in his works.  His realism is not as “intransigent” as Olaf Peters says, for it is Dadaist in attitude—Dix exhibited works in the first Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920, and in the German Expressionists exhibition In Darmstadt that same year.  The Hairdressers’ God, 1922 is perhaps his most Dadaist work.  Trench, 1920-1923 is perhaps his most dramatic expressionist work.  As his great altarpiece Metropolis, 1927-28 shows, Dix used both traditional modes of art and modern modes of art to make his socially critical point.  Modern life was ugly, and he used whatever resources art history offered to drive home that reality.  As To Beauty, 1922 makes clear, he took on upscale modern life with a vengeance, as his defiant pose in the center of the painting indicates—looked at its attractions with the same scathing eye, ruthlessly attendant to every detail, with which he surveys the dance scene in the central panel of Metropolis.

Otto Dix, Dedicated to Sadists, 1922, private collection.

A sex murder is a soul murder in the symbolic form of a body murder.  Women are as capable of it as men, as Dix’s Dedicated to Sadists, Dream of the Female Sadist I, and Dream of the Female Sadist II, all 1922 make forcefully clear.  All the sadists are females—dominatrix.  In the first dream she castrates men, in the second dream she mutilates women’s vaginas, crucifying one woman upside down, her hairy vagina in your face, as those of some of her other victims are.  Significantly, the masked dominatrix in the second dream has what is unmistakably an erect black penis projecting from the opening in her girdle and underpants.  And she has a small moustache, indicating he is a man in drag.  He is acting out, by way of art, his psychic bisexuality—and perhaps he was bisexual in physical practice--and identifying with woman in the act of abusing her, for the sadist invariably identifies with the victim, getting pleasure from doing so.  These works confirm that Dix understood perversion from the inside out.  And that with unflinching eyes he saw the ugliness of it all.   

Sex was an important refuge from death during the war, as the many images of Dix enjoying himself in the whorehouses of conquered Belgium show.  Me in Brussels, 1922—on leave wearing his soldier’s uniform, he stares at the invitingly naked buttocks of a prostitute--makes the point succinctly.  The Dadaist Memory of the Halls of Mirrors in Brussels, 1920 shows him in uniform with a naked prostitute sitting on his lap.  Enflamed with passion, as his red face and red hands suggest, his right hand is raised in a toast—the bottle of Chateau Vieux is on a table next to him—and his left hand squeezes the left breast of a naked woman, wearing high white boots on her legs, their whiteness highlighting her white body.  Dix is eating, drinking, and making merry, for tomorrow he may die.   

Dix probably had his first sexual experiences in them—sex and war are inextricably connected in his art.  As his sex murder and whorehouse works suggest, he had a seemingly insatiable appetite for sex, especially with anonymous prostitutes, for it was guiltless, just as he felt no guilt killing the anonymous enemy on the battlefield.  But more to the unconscious point they served as a temporary reprieve, distraction, and escape from the death that might await him on the battlefield.  It was invisibly present when he had sex with a prostitute, for he wore his uniform as though going into battle.  Sex was certainly on his mind when he made his gruesome sex murder paintings; his meticulous depiction of the scene, and his focus on the female genitals, cruelly attacked perhaps in a fit of castration anxiety, as I have suggested, or perhaps cruelly attacked just for the hell of it, for he had been in hell, was haunted by the hell of war.  Certainly Dix’s Self-portrait as a Soldier is the portrait of a soldier suffering in hell.  But it is also the face of a sexually excited soldier:  the painting is fraught with orgasmic tension, the lurid gestures being so many orgasmic eruptions, grand ejaculates suggesting Dix’s grandiosity (what is grander than a soldier shooting his gun?) and volcanic temperament, kept under control in his social portraits, and in such works as Self-Portrait with Nude Model, 1923. 

Otto Dix, Self-portrait with Nude Model, 1923, private collection.

He no longer looks like a sex murderer.  Properly dressed in shirt and tie and expensive pants, looking straight ahead as though unaware of the model at his side and somewhat shorter than him, and somewhat ugly, or at least unsightly, in both face and body—she looks like a vulgar peasant, he like a classy aristocrat, her lord and master—certainly not classically beautiful and ideal, a Venus-like nude rather than a lower class girl, perhaps a slut.  The work is a masterpiece of class consciousness—the upper class artist, wearing the uniform of a gentleman, and the lower class model, naked and submissively posing, stand side by side, having nothing to say to each other, uncommunicative to the point of indifference.  The work conveys Dix’s lifelong class consciousness:  he was born into a working class—proletariat—family but became a member of the upper class—a sophisticated bourgeois—by way of his success as an artist.  Dix claimed to be a Marxist—his work was widely recognized and celebrated in the Communist German Democratic Republic—but the prices of his paintings made him a capitalist, and he painted several capitalist art dealers, lawyers, businessmen.   

His first exhibition after the second world war was held in the Deutsche Akademie der Kunst in Communist East Berlin.  On the cover of the catalogue he is pictured like a Communist hero—a sort of Stakhanovite painter.  He holds his palette, busy with colorful patches, in his right hand, and his paintbrush in his right hand.  He is wearing a painter’s white robe, suggesting he is a saint of sorts.  He sits in front of a grand red drape, confirming he is a Communist in spirit if not exactly in letter.  For he was more Nietzschean than Communist, as Schubert emphasizes.  In 1912 Dix made a now lost portrait bust of Nietzsche, tinted green—the color of leaves before they fall--as though to suggest that the philosopher was still alive.  Dix was an “ardent  Nietzschean,” as Dietrich Schubert writes, pointing out that the head in his Self-Portrait as a Soldier is “craned forward as in his bust of Nietzsche,” suggesting his identification with Nietzsche, and with that his “will to power” or “desire for power,” for Nietzsche the motivating force in human beings.  Writing about the “feeling of power” in 1882—nine years before Dix was born—Nietzsche “connected the desire for cruelty with the pleasure in the feeling of power,” which involved “the hunger to overpower.”  Dix read extensively in Nietzsche, suggesting that Nietzsche became a spiritual father figure for him, or at least that he identified with him to the extent of accepting his ideas wholesale—uncritically.

I suggest Dix’s works are motivated by his will to power—a German will to power that became explicit in World War I.  Again and again he portrayed powerful men—businessmen, who had the money to buy his art, such as Max Roesberg, 1922; art dealers, who had power to sell his art, such as Alfred Flechtheim, 1926; lawyers, who had the power of the law, such as Dr. Fritz Glaser, 1921; and doctors, who had the power of life and death, such as the Laryngologist Dr. Mayer-Herman, 1926, surrounded by the instruments of his power—in an act of artistic submission.  It was necessary for his economic survival, as well as a chance to mingle with the socially elite.  But he also portrayed powerless women, his passive and submissive models, confirming his power over them, in a compensatory artistic act.  He could explicitly dominate them, the men implicitly dominated him.  But Dix really showed his power—and the power of his art—when he became a sex murderer in spirit.  There were other artist sex murderers at the time, most notoriously, Oskar Kokoschka, whose play “Murderer, Hope of Woman,” 1921 became the script for the composer Paul Hindemith’s opera with the same title.  Kokoschka’s poster advertising the opera became the emblematic work of the sex murder period, as it may be called, in post-World War I Germanic art:  disillusionment with war became disillusionment with women, murdering women (at least in art) became a substitute gratification for murdering enemy soldiers—after all, a prostitute is an enemy soldier, threatening one with death by disease.  (Picasso was another sex murderer; Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—all prostitutes--gave him gonorrhea, which is why he turned them into murderous monsters by murdering them with his art.)  Like Dix, Hindemith “survived grenade attacks only by good luck,” as he said, and he became the emblematic artist of Neue Sachlichkeit music as Dix became the emblematic artist of Neue Sachlichkeit visual art.  

The works of all three conveys hatred of women and the conscious wish to murder them, confirming that they all suffered from what the psychoanalyst Wolfgang Lederer calls unconscious “fear of woman.”  It was probably latent in their psyches before it manifested it in their murderous behavior to women, in a sense a continuation of their murderous behavior in the war, suggesting a paranoiac hatred of all human beings (unconsciously including themselves).  Lederer traces its appearance in art and literature through the ages, suggesting that it is endemic to men, at least men coming into their sexual own and at war with the world—trying to make their place in it and find a woman who will love them.  The world does not, for it kills them in war—soul murders them, and often enough destroys their bodies.  (Were Dix’s sex murderers, surrogates for Dix, shell shocked, which is perhaps why they found fucking shocking, especially fucking a prostitute, a fallen women who suggested they would become fallen men—fall in the battle of the sexes--when they fucked her, merged with her by copulating with her?  Were the vaginas of the whores grenades thrown at him, which is why they exploded, as they do in the sex murder pictures?)  Dix’s sex murder pictures convey an incurable fear of woman, and with that a psychotic hostility to them, a gynophobia simultaneously acted out and denied by killing her, however vicariously through art. 

Dix’s will to power—a very German will to power—is self-evident in his arrogantly self-confident   fixed stare at the spectator in his portrait on the cover of the East German catalogue.  It is the same fixed, intimidating, ruthless stare—determined and self-defining--that appears over and over again in his many self-portraits—among them Self-Portrait among Prostitutes and Self-Portrait in the City, both 1921, Self-Portrait, 1922, Self-Portrait, 1923, and especially his tough guy wartime Self-Portrait with Cap, 1916 and Self-Portrait, Grinning, Head Resting on Hand, 1917, among other in-your-face-and-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it works.  He wants to challenge, overpower, dominate the spectator with his unblinking, uncompromising stare, and above all with his art, its harsh realism, often verging on macabre surrealism, defeating whatever idealism remains in the spectator’s eyes, and denying that any exists in the world.  Ugliness is always more powerful and realistic and inherently surrealistic—nightmarish--than beauty. 

Sometimes Dix finds beauty in nature untainted by society, but he never lingers with it, and knows he can never overpower it, which is why he stays in the big cities, where there is hardly a trace of it.  As the lush nature in St. Christopher IV, 1939 shows, he admires the great German landscape paintings of the Northern Renaissance, but what he admires most of all is their eye for detail, their excruciating realism, their power of observation, patiently scrutinizing whatever is immediately in front of them, giving their works a sense of immediacy and presence worthy of the people and things they see.  For Dix and them, perception was an exercise in the will to power—a determined attempt to gain power over reality.  The reality principle informs their art and Dix’s, but for them reality—especially nature--is uncannily beautiful, as it is in Dürer’s watercolor of the Great Piece of Turf, 1503 and Altdorfer’s Danube Landscape Near Regensburg, ca. 1520, while Dix is more interested in society, where human beings are ugly.

Otto Dix, Self-portrait as a Soldier, 1914.

The expressionism in his Self-Portrait as a Soldier convey his will to power—for expressionism conveys the power of instinct—even as it shows that the will to power makes one ugly, that raw instinct is peculiarly ugly, and makes for an ugly art.  There is an uncompromising ugliness in Dix’s sex murder paintings and War prints.  Both are tours de force celebrating the power of ugliness.  Dix paints his portraits—and self-portraits--not out of respect for their all too human beings, but out of a certain contempt for them—and himself.  There is not a hint of tenderness in any of his portraits, whether of men or women, or himself.  But using the power of his art to overpower them and empower himself he gains control of them and self-control—a paradoxical triumph of art over ugly reality.  The vehement exactitude and doggedness of his work is a triumph of the will to art over ugly human reality.  I suggest that making art, with its focus on the physical, kept him from a mental breakdown, although his sex murder works suggest that he had one.  Certainly his war works were a way of working through the trauma of the war, with its many near-death experiences, as the prints indicate.  Together with his sex murder works, they were a form of self-analysis, and with that a way of gaining power over himself—ego power, the power evident in his steady glance, his unflinching look at his own and the world’s ugliness.  And managing his hatred of both.  The sex and war works served a therapeutic purpose; better to murder by way of art than to commit suicide, or for that matter murder women and murder in war.  They are certainly a way of acknowledging his ugly emotions.  

Dix was clearly conscious that he and his art were psychopathological, as his portrait of the psychiatrist Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann, 1920 indicates.  Dr. Stadelmann was the author of Die Stellung der Psychopathology zur Kunst, published in Munich in 1908 by Piper Verlag.  In “The Relationship of Psychopathology to Art” Stadelmann discusses the art of Rops, Beardsley, Goya, Blake, Munch, Behmer, and Kubin, reproducing their work.  They were all mentally ill artists, and their art was an expression of their mental illness, as Munch explicitly acknowledged.  In 1916 Dr. Stadelmann published Unserer Zeit und ihrer neue Kunst (“Our Times and Its New Art”), in which he contextualizes Expressionism historically and spiritually.  He wrote poetry, plays, short stories, and four novels, knew many Expressionist writers, and wrote for the leftwing art journal Aktion.  A psychiatrist with a “flourishing practice and a private madhouse,” as Georg Grosz wrote, he “considered Dada a kind of mental disease of society worth studying,” and organized and financed, secretly, “the famous Dada Soireé of January 20, 1920” in Dresden, according to Georg Grosz, who met Dr. Stadelmann that year, the same year Dix painted his portrait.  The Soireé “featured recitals and performances by Johannes Baader, Raoul Hausman, Richard Huelsenbeck and ended in uproar when the enraged public called for the police and asked for its money back.”  Dix’s portrait emphasizes Dr. Stadelmann’s eyes, in acknowledgement of his use of hypnosis, and perhaps in envy of their power of penetration and insight.  It is worth emphasizing that Dix’s portrait of Dr. Stadelmann was made only two years after the war ended, suggesting that he realized that he was seriously mentally ill and needed to see a psychiatrist.  Was Dr. Stadelmann trying to hypnotize him, as the doctor’s eyes seem to suggest, or did Dix try to stare Dr. Stadelmann down, as the portrait also suggests?  Dix’s portraits are no doubt penetrating, but it is not clear that they showed much insight into his subjects, for he seemed more interested in their social position than their psyches, treating their faces, with their fixed stares, as blunt expressions of power rather than of subtle feeling. 

Dix’s Self-Portrait with Carnation, 1912 is clearly modeled on and competitive with Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait with a Sprig of Flowers, 1493.  Dürer was 22 when he painted it, Dix was 21 when he painted his self-portrait.  They were both at the beginning of their careers.  But Dix wears a rough corduroy jacket, Dürer a silk blouse and robe, signaling their difference in class.  Dürer’s father was a successful goldsmith and drawing master, Dix’s father belonged to the working class, as his clothing and hardened hands indicate in the two portraits Dix painted of his parents, 1914 and 1921.  His father was an iron foundry worker, his mother was a seamstress, and he was born in the small town of Unterhaus rather than the big city of Nuremberg, a flourishing trade center, where Dürer was born and lived his whole life, becoming a prominent citizen and world-famous artist, patronized by the Emperor Maximilian I and in communication with Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, and Leonardo da Vinci.  Dix’s hair is black and cut short, like that of a workingman—his father’s hair is also cut short—and Dürer’s hair is blonde and long, like that of an aristocrat, as he in fact became.  His hands are soft, flexible, and open, unlike Dix’s, which are hard and calloused, like his father’s, and clenched in a fist.  To be a painter was to be a working man, a proletariat, for Dix, rather than the lord and master of all one surveyed, as Dürer was. 

The fingers in most of Dix’s portraits are dramatically elongated, unrealistically (surrealistically?) exaggerated like those of a witch—Sylvia von Harden, 1928 seems like one—or to make a clever point, like those of the cunning lawyer Hugo Simons, 1925.  But perhaps most of all because Dix regarded the hand as the most expressive part of the body, even more than the eyes.  After all, he used his hands to make his paintings and prints; his livelihood depended upon them, as his father’s hands did for him.  Dix worked with his hands, but Dürer worked his mind as well—his hands were an extension of his mind, for he was a learned, intellectual artist, using images to convey ideas, even as they were sensuously pleasing—beautiful, as his works are.  Or perhaps Dix wants to suggest that his pictures can grab you, indeed, grasp you by the throat.  The fingers are all implicitly Dix’s—the fingers with which he choked his whores as well as held his paintbrush.  But the key difference between the early self-portraits is Dürer’s relaxed, confident gaze at the spectator and Dix’s harsh gaze, his eyes boring into the spectator’s, confronting him in a fight to the emotional death, forcing himself upon the viewer rather than keeping at a respectful distance from him, as Dürer does.  Dix has no respect for his human subject matter however depend on it he is, confirming he is an anti-humanist—too hurt by the world to believe in human dignity--unlike the humanist Dürer and his closest friend Willibald Pirckheimer, a prominent Renaissance Humanist.      

Dix painted models all his life, and all of them were grossly ugly, from the black-haired muse in his Self-Portrait with Muse, 1924, with the nipple of her big fat breast provocatively staring the spectator in the eye, to the grimacing adolescent nude in Vanitas (Youth and Old Age), 1932 and the anorexic Venus with Gloves, also 1932, pale and emaciated as death, her breasts small and shrunken, an acknowledgement of Cranach’s peculiarly sexless thin Venuses, a perverse idea of voluptuousness.  The Prostitute (Girl with Red Bow), 1922, Three Prostitutes on the Street, 1925, the feline-like Reclining Woman on Leopard Skin, 1927 (probably a prostitute), the thin, small-breasted models in Seated Girl (Redheaded Nude/Seated Nude with Stockings, 1925 and Seated Female Nude with Red Hair and Stockings in Front of Pink Cloth, 1930 (all prostitutes), and Seated Old Woman, also 1930 (probably a prostitute over the hill), are all somewhat pathetic examples of femaleness for Dix.  Again and again we see ugly women, naked or half-naked, in Dix’s art, confirming his obsession with sex, especially sex with prostitutes—illicit sex, as it were.  Some are old and shopworn, like the Lady with Mink and Veil, 1920 and the Half-Nude with Red Hat, 1922, perhaps suggesting that Dix found her in the red-light district, and reminding us that red is the color of desire.  Some have sagging, tired breasts, like the aging Half-Nude, 1921, some have huge breasts, cradled in one arm, so they don’t hang from their bodies like dead weights, like the Half-Nude, 1926.  They are pathetic creatures, as their sad faces suggest.  Full of despair, they are no longer the seductive whores they once were.  A Half-Nude with Big Breasts, 1922-1923 stares straight ahead, holding her head high, but Dix is interested in her breasts, which project to the edge of the picture, as though into the face of the spectator.  He views them all with cynical indifference, regarding them as more or less inanimate objects—indeed, still lives, for the life in them has become peculiarly stilled. 

Otto Dix, Venus with Gloves, 1932, private collection.

Perhaps the ugliest—physically and emotionally ugliest—of all of Dix’s women are the wealthy women in the central panel of the medieval-type altarpiece Metropolis and the hard-up whores who parade on its panels.  They are both what William James called bitch goddesses of success, however different their social class.  The peculiarly surreal work is a tour de force of social criticism—a display of the contradictions of capitalism, the rich in the center, the poor—crippled veterans begging for a handout and the prostitutes looking for customers, the former physically grotesque, the latter emotionally grotesque (the Germans now call prostitutes sex workers, and they have their own union, confirming that they are members of the working class, proletariat servicing capitalists, laborers like Dix’s father and mothers)—in the panels, that is, on the sidelines.  They have no right to exist but are of use to the upper class, except, of course, when they have become crippled, whether by war or despair.  Dix’s models are prostituting themselves to Dix just as they prostituted themselves to their customers.  Metropolis puts the sacred altarpiece to profane use, suggesting that the scene we see is a peculiar kind of black mass, a perhaps reckless interpretation based on the large black section of the work, inhabited by the musicians and their instruments—a sort of orchestral pit.  They form a jazz band, as the prominent saxophone makes clear.  Jazz is an African-American art form, and a modern music for the masses, suggesting that the traditional music the great German composers made and played for aristocrats has become passé in the modern world of mass culture—popular rather than elitist culture.  Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms make no sense in the modern world.  I suggest that Metropolis is a devastating critique of traditional German high culture as well as high society, just as his Self-Portrait with Carnation is a devastating critique of Dürer’s Self-Portrait with a Sprig of Flowers, and the humanistic art that Dürer stood for, however nominally like it, a perverse homage to it.

Otto Dix is a master of the aesthetics of ugliness—murderous ugliness of the body and soul, and above all of society, as his War works make clear.  He seems to condemn it, but he relishes it, just as he relishes fucking and murdering prostitutes, there be little other way of having pleasure in the painful world, however painful pleasure itself may be.  Dix’s art gives us little pleasure, but it shows the painful truth.  It is why it is more authentically modern than what he dismissed as “international abstraction,” for him an elitist art for art’s sake rather than a critical realism for society’s sake, which his great art is. WM


(1) George Hagman, Aesthetic Experience (Amsterdam and New York:  Rodopi, 2005), 108

(2) Anthony Storr, Human Destructiveness (New York:  Basic Books, 1972), 27

(3) Dietrich Schubert, “Death in the Trench:  The Death of the Portrait?  Otto Dix’s Wartime Self-Portraits, 1915-1918),” Otto Dix (Munich and New York:  Prestel, 2010, exhibition catalogue), 35

(4) It seems worth noting that Willem de Kooning was also a sex murderer in spirit, as his series of murderous portraits of women suggest, among them the painting Woman VI, 1952 and the sculpture Seated Woman on a Bench, 1972.

(5) Storr, 108

(6) Olaf Peters, “Intransigent Realism, Otto Dix Between the World Wars,” Ibid., 16

(7)Leonard Shengold, Soul Murder:  The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Neglect (New York:  Fawcett Columbine, 1989) is an extensive study of soul murder.   

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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