Art and Devastation: A Tour of German Post-War Expressionism #3

Otto Dix, Streetcar, 1921. Woodcut. MoMA. The Celebrities, 1920. Woodcut. MoMA.

Otto Dix was a decorated machine gun commander from World War I. His post-war art featured the graphic reality of the trenches, and the ongoing trauma and anxiety soldiers endured. He said that “all art is exorcism.” Dix had no use for political idealism.

Streetcar depicts an electrified trolley at night. The crudity of the woodcut medium serves as a comment on the crudity of modern life. Civilian life is loud, chaotic, industrialized, and electrified. The car sends showers of sparks. The people inside are garishly lit and distorted, some half in shadow. Letters and numbers flash randomly through the scene. Some faces resemble tribal masks. Soldiers had left one kind of battle only to find themselves in another.

Celebrities is an acid mockery of media and ideology in civilian life. The man at the desk reading his newspaper has four heads. It could be depicting the phases of the man leaning back in his chair, like Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. On the newspaper are written four visions of the future: “Love, Order, Fatherland, Dada.” The man’s heads become reflections of the words. He starts out dreamily propped on his hand, shaggy hair and beard, with a pipe and a smile, eyes vacant. Then he becomes an officer in an eagle helmet, bushy mustache, with steely eyes fixed on the viewer. Next he is a bald statesman with a Van Dyke beard and mustache, eyes upturned. Last he is a kind of Jesus figure, seemingly with a crown of thorns, with apparent suffering in his eyes,

Art could comment and mock. But could it do more?