Otto Dix

Three Prostitutes on the Street. 1925. Tempera on plywood. Private Collection.


(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


The Lessons and Legacy of World War I


Self and Identity in Expressionist Portraiture


(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


Images of Women in Austrian and German Art


(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz


(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


The Meanings of Modernity in Germany, 1905-1933


(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


Pattern and Design in Modern and Self-Taught Art


(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


Café Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and Weimar Germany


And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market


Expressionism and the Human Figure


Expressionist Graphics in Austria & Germany





(Images of Children in Twentieth-Century Art)


(And Some Thoughts About Looted Art)


Repression and Revolt in Modern Art


Michel Nedjar and Expressionist Primitivism


Realism in Weimar-Era Germany


A Question of Quality


Expressionism and the Human Body


Social Realism in Germany and Russia, Circa 1919-1933



Images of Mortality in German Art


Controversy in Modern Art




Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz

Weimar Germany has long fascinated contemporary

audiences, inspiring popular interpretations like the

hit musical Cabaret and the Metropolitan Museum’s

acclaimed 2006 exhibition “Glitter and Doom.” The

combination of unchecked libertinism and present-day

awareness of the impending Holocaust holds the dramatic

appeal of a well-crafted horror movie. The most compelling

images of Weimar decadence are invariably tinged

with presentiments of decay and destruction. Weimar-era

artists appear to share with their future public knowledge

of a fate they are powerless to forestall. Max Beckmann,

Otto Dix and George Grosz had different ideas about

art and its proper function within society, but together

these three men captured the spirit of their time with

exceptional force and cogency.

Unlike the earlier Expressionists, Weimar-era artists

did not congregate in aesthetically oriented collectives

such as the Blauer Reiter or Brücke. They drifted in and

out of loose association with one another or, like Grosz,

made alliances that were more political than artistic.

Pinning a label on this disparate group of creators is

not easy, and the museum director Gustav Hartlaub,

who coined the term Neue Sachlichkeit, knew from

the outset that his formulation was imperfect. Hartlaub

divided Neue Sachlichkeit artists into two camps. The

“Verists,” based largely in the urban north, were interested

in documenting contemporary social phenomena.

The “Magic Realists,” oriented both geographically and

stylistically toward the south, favored a revival of Italian

classicism. The two groups were aligned, respectively,

with the political left and the right; the Magic Realists

would easily accommodate Nazi tastes.

Neue Sachlichkeit is a more elastic concept than its

common English translation, New Objectivity, suggests.

Sachlich means “realistic,” but also “matter-of-fact,” “tothe-

point,” “fundamental.” The “objectivity” in question

might best be characterized as the object-ness of a subject:

not only its palpable substance, but its essential being.

Verists such as Beckmann, Dix and Grosz strove to see

beyond visible realities, into the inherent nature of things.

The artist was an interpretive vehicle, communicating

between the depths and the surface. But inasmuch as

the artist was also a subjective human being, there was

no true objectivity involved.

Military service during World War I was the singular

formative experience for Beckmann, Dix and Grosz,

as it was for many Weimar-era artists. Initially, war

had an elemental grandeur that attracted young men

steeped in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. “Just as

I consciously pursue the terror of sickness and lust, love

and hate to their fullest extent,” Beckmann wrote home

from the Front, “so I’m trying to do now with this war.”

After about six months working as a medical orderly

in Belgium, Beckmann suffered a nervous breakdown

and was mustered out of service. Grosz, too, lasted only

a few months before succumbing to a combination of

emotional and physical illness; he managed to sit out

the rest of the war on medical leave. Only Dix seemed

impervious to the strains of total war, volunteering for

combat duty and eventually training as a fighter pilot.

“War… must be regarded as a natural event,” he wrote.

“You have to see human beings in this unbridled state

to know something about them.”


World War I was a visceral expression of modernity’s

destructive force, with implications that far transcended

the boundaries of the battlefield. The war made a mockery

of traditional Judeo-Christian morality and rent asunder

long-established aristocratic regimes in Russia, Germany

and Austria. Grosz, who had a deeply ingrained antiauthoritarian

streak, viewed the war and its aftermath

as a scathing indictment of what he called the “pillars

of society”: the Church, the military and the capitalist

bourgeoisie. He pinned his hopes on Communism, joining

the Party in December 1918. Beckmann believed

that the moral authority once vested in religion had

been ceded to art and that if he could create honest

depictions of the human predicament, people would be

inspired to change. Dix had no such faith in the possibility

of political or spiritual redemption. The world

was brutalized and brutal; he called it as he saw it and

enjoyed provoking outrage for its own sake.


Artists faced the challenge of giving visual coherence

to a world that no longer made sense. Of the various

prewar styles, Cubism seemed to correlate best with the

fragmented nature of modern existence. Cubist elements

animate Dix’s battlefield drawings and can be detected

as well in the jagged planes and skewed perspectives of

Beckmann’s and Grosz’s work from the late ‘teens and

early 1920s. However, even before World War I the

relationship between what the art historian Wilhelm

Worringer identified as “abstraction and empathy” had

posed an aesthetic conundrum. The Blauer Reiter artists

laid claim to abstraction as a bridge to the spiritual, but

Beckmann saw both German and French abstraction

as an arid cul-de-sac. To evoke empathy, he believed,

an artist needed to retain ties to recognizable reality.

Beckmann rejected the predominant thrust of modernism

and instead looked backward, to artists such as

Brueghel and Matthias Grünewald. Dix, too, admired

Northern Renaissance painting, both for its smooth,

licked surfaces and its expressive, sometimes tormented,

realism. Dix and Grosz revived the largely discredited

practice of history painting, injecting the genre with a

venom that subverted its former celebratory function.

This trolling through old styles and genres was not a

return to the past, but rather an acknowledgement that

no one style could meet the demands of the present.

Indeed, much Weimar-era art involves a pastiche of

styles, often juxtaposed to dramatic effect. The childlike

primitivism of Grosz’s caricatures underscores the scathing

seriousness of their content. Dix painted horrific,

hideous subjects with the refined delicacy of an Old

Master. Both he and Grosz employed a kind of pseudocollage,

in which some elements of a composition are

limned with photographic precision, while others retain

an abstract crudeness. Beckmann navigated a similar

path between three-dimensional verisimilitude and the

flatness of the picture plane, cramming his surfaces with

realistic detail to block out the existential void beneath.

The socio-political upheavals of the early Weimar

years called into question the very viability of art.

Dada, an anti-art movement that originated in neutral

Switzerland during World War I, came to Berlin in 1917

and culminated in the 1920 Dada Fair. Disdaining the

bourgeois preciousness of traditional artworks (paintings

in particular), Dadaists advocated techniques, like

collage and photo-montage, that concealed the artist’s

touch. They favored the ugly over the beautiful, the

ephemeral over the permanent, the mass-produced

over the unique. In keeping with this philosophy, Grosz

developed an uninflected, linear style of caricature

and worked with the publisher Wieland Herzfelde to

disseminate provocative broadsheets and prints. Large

editions and photo-lithography were used to circumvent

the art trade and reach an ostensibly proletarian public.

Inflation further encouraged the publication of

prints in the early 1920s, prompting people to invest

in tangible objects and at the same time curbing the

market for more expensive items like paintings. Prints

and print portfolios enabled Grosz, Beckmann and Dix

to deliver visual treatises on specific aspects of Weimar

society. All three artists were attracted to popular entertainments

such as circuses, cabarets and carnivals, both

as alternatives to high culture and as metaphors for the

farcical nature of contemporary life. Beckmann created

a broad catalogue of human foibles in his 1921 drypoint

cycle The Annual Fair. Grosz’s repeated attacks on the

military culminated in the 1928 Background portfolio, a

suite of reproductions based on stage designs for Erwin

Piscator’s dramatization of the antiwar novel The Good

Soldier Schwejk. One of the greatest bodies of work to

come out of World War I was undoubtedly Dix’s War

cycle: a series of fifty etchings published in 1924. Though

not intended as an antiwar statement, the War series is

all the more powerful for its lack of proselytizing. The

prints simply record the enormity of the conflict as Dix

himself experienced it.

The adversarial approach that some Weimar artists

took toward the ruling establishment was not without

risks. Grosz was almost constantly being hauled into

court; first, at the time of the Dada Fair, for insulting the

military; then for obscenity; and finally, in connection

with the Background portfolio, for blasphemy. Dix walked

a fine line between scandal and outright lawlessness. Only

once did he find himself in legal trouble, for depicting

an allegedly “obscene” prostitute with sagging breasts.

Both Grosz and Dix came from relatively lower-class

backgrounds, and they relished the stance of dandyprovocateur.

Beckmann, however, maintained ongoing

ties to the aristocracy and harbored a more elitist view

of his artistic mission. Cultural renewal, he believed,

could only come from above, through what he termed

“aristocratic bolshevism.”

At the time of the Weimar revolution, many artists

had allied themselves with the proletariat, but it turned

out that the two groups were not especially compatible.

Workers did not like or even understand avant-garde art,

and before long the Communist Party was calling Grosz

to task for the negativity of his imagery. Beyond this, the

artistic passion in Grosz’s and Dix’s work—the complex

interplay between fascination and revulsion—made it

unsuitable for propaganda purposes. Artists could not

easily subordinate their personal creative goals to those of

a commanding authority. Nonetheless, the idea that the

public needed guidance from a higher power—whether

from the Communists or the defunct aristocracy—seemed

unshakable, and doomed Germany’s attempt to establish

a viable democracy.

In the mid-1920s, the Weimar Republic momentarily

stabilized. Inflation had been brought under control,

and the ravages of World War I were beginning to fade

into memory. Beckmann was teaching at the Städel Art

School in Frankfurt, Dix at the Academy of Fine Arts

in Dresden. Even Grosz had settled down professionally

and personally, having become disenchanted with

Communism after a visit to the USSR. All three artists

excelled at portraiture during this period, reflecting

more conventional aspirations as well as the growth of

an appreciative clientele for their work. Beckmann’s

approach to the human condition became increasingly

idiosyncratic, as he began to develop a personal symbolism

that would remain with him for the rest of his life.

Of the three artists, only Grosz, because of his

repeated legal imbroglios and Communist affiliation,

was an immediate target for the Nazis. Already engaged

as a teacher at the Art Students League in New York,

he brought his family to America shortly before Hitler

became Chancellor in 1933. For Dix and Beckmann, the

years between 1933 and 1937 (when both were included

in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition) were a time

of ambiguous unease. On the one hand, they were each

immediately removed from their teaching posts; on the

other, they were still to some extent able to exhibit and

sell their work. Beckmann and his wife fled to Amsterdam

immediately after the opening of “Degenerate Art.” Dix

remained behind, painting landscapes and Christian

allegories that would not offend the Nazis.

Hitler’s notion of “degeneracy” had sweeping implications,

eventually leading to the wholesale extermination

of people he considered unfit to live. Beckmann, Dix

and Grosz were judged “degenerate” because their work

was not classically realistic, and because it highlighted

the moral vacuity of contemporary Germany. These

artists chronicled a society that had sent its young men

to war and then left them, crippled or maimed, to beg

in the streets. This was a society in which everything

had become commoditized and where prostitution was

the emblematic profession. Coming from different

vantage points, Beckmann, Dix and Grosz warned that

unrestrained capitalism would create dangerous disparities

of wealth, rampant corruption and a toxic sense of

injustice. There is good reason that their warnings still

resonate with audiences today.