Saturday, August 16, 2014

Prehistoric Galleries: A Visit to Quinkan Country


On a recent trip to Eastern Australia, I was fortunate to see some of the spectacular ancient "art" in Northern Queensland.  "Art" is is quotes because the original meaning and function of these ancient images is unknown.  What we do know derives mostly from contemporary aboriginal interpreters, who have grown up with these paintings and wall markings.  On their telling, many of the depicted figures are "Quinkans," or spirits.  Visiting the Quinkans offers an opportunity to reflect on rock paintings more broadly.  Prehistoric imagery raises deep questions about the origins of art.


The Queenland sites are near a town called Laura on the Cape York Peninsula.  It's about a four hour drive from the closest airport (in Cairns), followed by a harrowing 45 minute drive into sandy bush roads (above).  Rachel did the driving, fearlessly facing dust, ditches, roots, and rocks in a rental 4-wheel drive.  We were guided by Roy (we never learned his last name), a local guide who works for the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Center.


 If we'd called in advance, we could have travelled in a guide's car.  We were offered a small discount on the the costly tour for the effort of taking our own vehicle.  Roy took us to an area called the Quinkan Galleries, one of several sites that allow visitors, which is known for having particular vivid paintings.  After the long winding ride, we came to a clearing (below), and from their Roy escorted us along with a small handful of other visitors to a  group of rocky overhangs, decorated with overlapping images of local animals, people, and spirits.  The term galleries seemed apt, and evidently there are many other sites nearby that are off-limits, and thousands of others elsewhere in Australia.  Most people associate rock painting with the caves of Western Europe, but Australia hosts the most expansive complexes of ancient art galleries in the world.


Roy told us that he learned about these from his grandfather, but also confided that much knowledge has been lost, and that more might be lost in his children's generation.  It's not surprising that knowledge has been lost.  The images on these rocks are thousands of years old.  Dates range considerably, because these cites were used by countless generations.  The oldest extant images are probably around 25,000 year old.  For perspective, recall that the world's most famous prehistoric paintings--the caves of Lascaux--are about 15 thousand years old.  There are some older paintings in Europe and elsewhere in Australia, but the Laura sites certainly correspond in both content and antiquity to some of the world's earliest images.  This art began squarely in the Upper Paleolithic (50-10 thousand years ago), the period in which painting is widely believed to have begun.


The images we saw may include some that are much more recent.  The oldest graphic elements are abstract carvings (I include an example above from a nearby site called Split Rock, which is open to the public for a nominal fee).  The paintings are in several different styles, and often overlap, with older, more faded images in the background.  The newest styles may be as young as 6,000 years old, which is still a millennium older than the old kingdom of Egypt.  Paintings in these newer styles may have been added and embellished up until the last century, but many of the extant images are well over 10,000 years old.

It is unclear whether the Quinkan galleries were in continuous use since Paleolithic times.  Given their remote location, it is possible that they fell out of use for periods of time.  It is possible, however that there is continuity between these ancient artists and more modern residence of the area.  The local Kuku Yalanji people are descended from groups that date back 50 thousand years, when this part of Australia was first inhabited.  Locals have inherited a rich lore corresponding to the images here.  Their interpretations came into the consciousness of white Australians largely through the efforts of Percy Tresize (left), a pilot, painter, and explorer who began to explore and document the caves around Laura in the 1960s.  Tresize consulted local informants and began to reconstruct their stories for a broader audience.  His 1969 book, Quinkan Country, remains the most thorough introduction.


Tresize collaborated with an aboriginal artist named Dick Roughsey (pictured with Trezise, right).  Roughsey was from Mornington Island, not Laura, but he worked with Tresize to collect information.  The two also developed complementary painting styles and collaborated on children's books, including one called The Quinkins, which was adapted into a marvelous animated short.  It can be viewed on YouTube.  I included a still below, showing two spirits -- I will return to them below.  The film is narrated by actor and activist, Brian Syron.  Another Roughsey film is narrated by David Gulpilil, Australia's most famous indinous actor.


Roughsey painted until his death in the 1980s and his work remains popular in Australia.  He signed his work using his tribal name, Goobalathaldin.   I include two examples below.  The first, from 1970, shows Roughsey and Trezise looking at rock art, and the second, from 1981, shows the arrival of the first missionaries.  In celebrating ancient aboriginal art, we mustn't forget that one of the world's oldest cultural groups fell victim to genocidal colonization with the arrival of Europeans.



According to the current interpretations there are two kinds of Quinkans, or spirits, represented along side the people and animals on these stone walls.  The first are the timaras, who are tall and thin and live in the cracks in the mountainsides (see central figure below).  The tamers are playful trickers, but they are benevolent and protect children.


The other spirits, called imjins, are malevolent.  The males bounce around on their oversized penises (called "tails" in the children's story) and the females bounce on their pendulous breasts.  Imjins kidnap children and eat people.  Here are examples from Split Rock.



Roy also told us that one of the figures on a Quinkan Gallery wall represented a female evil spirit who disguised herself as a beautiful young woman to lure men.  She is the dark figure with delicate locks of hair and large breasts in the center, below.


This evil succubus spirit is standing beside two men, a large bird, and some other animals.  A great serpent forms a framing motif over her head.  In stark contrast to this busy array, just around the bend on a stretch of the same wall, there is a solitary image of a person lying horizontally, perhaps one of her victims lying dead (below).


Just after the section with the succubus figure, there were two rock walls that converged forming a triangular passageway, flanked by more paintings (below).  This area, Roy told us, was used for the initiation of young men.  Consistent with that story, one wall is covered by juvenile handprints (also below).  These are not the only juvenile handprints to be found in ancient sites.  It has even been suggested that much rock art was produced by adolescents.  Others have used finger-length ratios to suggest that much rock art was produced by women.  Such questions of authorship will forever allude us.



Though named after the spirits, the Quinkan Galleries are equally impressive for their many depictions of animals.  Creatures include kangaroos and wallabies (top), dingos (see the first imjin picture above), scrub turkeys, emus, ibises, echidnas, bats (below), baramundi, snakes, turtles, and crocodiles (below).  These animals would have likely been hunted by inhabitants of the region, though there is also a long tradition of individuals adopting a "totem animal," which they cannot eat. The significance of these animals is hard to determine, since the images do not typically show interactions between animals and people.



Indeed, the images are all curiously independent of each other.  The walls often have a kind of compositional coherence, but the individual elements are rarely interacting, suggesting that these are not images of scenes or events.  Some of the images were presumably painted together, such as a group of bats, but many others could have been painted at different times, perhaps years apart.  Trezise observes in his book that the Quinkan Galleries contain at least ten different styles corresponding to multiple stages of development, from simple geometric petroglyphs to naturalistic polychrome representations.  His list includes:  geometric engravings, figurative engravings, stencils, silhouettes, outlined silhouettes, large polychrome figures with light bodies, large polychrome figures with red bodies, small figures in all colors, and large bichromes of men with interior decorations.  He also notes that there are small monochrome figures that are poorly drawn, which he identifies as more recent additions.  Trezise's sequence is surmised based on patterns of fading and overlapping, rather than chemical dating techniques  (For a shorter list, see the image from the Quinkan Cultural Center, right).

This account of artistic development, from simple geometry to naturalistic representation, is a standard refrain in studies of prehistoric art.  It is sometimes said that the history of painting recapitulated ontogeny: we see children progress through stages that are analogous to how painting developed overtime.  The geometric forms in ancient art are often compared to children's early markings, or to absent-minded doodles make by adults.  But various facts complicate this simple story.

One complication is that, in Europe at least, highly naturalistic three-dimensional sculptures appear before there is evidence of naturalistic painting.  The Venus of Hohle Fehls from the Rein valley (right) is 35-40 thousand years old.  At that time, painting in Europe was limited to geometric forms.  This may make sense, on reflection, however, since three-dimensional forms are, in some sense, more like the 3D objects they depict.  Depicting 3D objects on a flat rock wall may have been a greater breakthrough.


Another complication is that some of the oldest paintings in Australia--those of Kimberley in the Northwest--are highly naturalistic (see example below).  They are quite different from the paintings near Laura: elegant, lyrical, and intricate, where as Laura works are more monolithic, weighty and whimsical.  Some have suggested that the Kimberley works were not made by aboriginal artists at all, but rather by immigrants from Africa, who came some 70,000 years ago.  I attended a fascinating and provocative lecture in Brisbane by biologist, J.D. Pettigrew, who has compiled evidence suggesting that Kimberley art dates back to these earlier times, and is African in origin.  Some would scoff at this theory, and complain that it doesn't give adequate credit to the ancestors of aboriginal Australians, who descend from populations in Central and South Asia.  There is also scant evidence of human life in Australia dating back 70,000 years, nor is there any art in Africa that has been dated that far back.  As dating methods improve, we can hope to get issues of chronology and authorship straightened out.


What is clear, however, is that early paintings were created by a number of different cultural groups, not just in different parts of Australia, but in different parts of the world.  Paleolithic rock art has been found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.   The oldest reliable dates are from El Castillo in Spain.  There is a red dot in those Spanish caves that has been dated as about 40,000 years old.  The paintings at Chauvet begin to appear few thousand years after that.  Kimberley painting in Australia could as old, and the rock art of Laura makes its debut around 25,000 years ago.  In Africa, representational paintings date back at least 23,000 years (the date of the Namibian image below), and abstract designs are over three times that age.


This chronology shows that  representational paintings first appear at different times in different places, but mostly within the Upper Paleolithic.  It seems unlikely that works that spread across the globe have a common cultural ancestry, so we must ask why different groups came up with the idea to paint, and why this happened during the same period of human prehistory.  The puzzle is compounded by a further fact: the first paintings appear many thousands of years after the initial appearance of our species.  Modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years (see the 195,00 year old homo sapiens femur below).  But representational painting is only about 50,000 years old.  If that's right, we didn't paint depictions for three quarters of our history as a species.  Why did we start?  And why did different groups start independent of each other?


One answer is that there was a biological mutation that changed the way humans think (e.g., here).  On this view, the brain continued to evolve after the body and some change in our ancestors' brains gave rise to art. I don't buy this story.  First, as just noted, representational painting seems to appear in different places in a population that is already widely distributed geographically.  This makes it unlikely that there was a single mutation before this spread.  Second, there are some authors who think neanderthals were making representational paintings.  If so, the practice has less to do with our biology than some conditions of life that were affecting biologically distinct groups.  Third, there are many examples of major changes in human behavior that take place without biological mutations.  The most obvious and important are the changes that took place during the neolithic revolution.  These two (including the development of farming) were found across geographically isolated groups.


It seems more likely that the rise of representational painting relates to changes in how our ancestors lived.  The most obvious factor is demography (see this, this, this, and this).  Representational painting may reflect increased population sizes.  Population increases are known to have occurred in the Paleolithic due to changes in climate and resultant patterns of migration.  Around 70 thousand years ago, the world temperature plummeted, causing population bottlenecks, and then, when things began to warm up, expansion began to warm up, 60 thousand years ago, new patterns of expansion and migration were possible (see temperature chart above, from here).  Migration would have also increased the probability of different groups coming into contact with each other.  Such factors would have had two important effects: group sizes would have grown and intergroup conflicts would have increased.  Both effects require new practices of cultural cohesion.  Large groups can be unified by sharing a common culture, and they they can differentiate themselves from competitors this way.  These pressures may have lead to a proliferation of new behaviors, including systems of religion, characteristic dress, music, and visual symbolism.  Population growth may have also made life more sedentary.  It is hard for large groups to move around, and risky because they are likely to encounter other groups.  Setting up permanent dwellings, meeting places, and sacred sites would naturally follow.  These are good conditions for the emergence of rock art.  The transition from portable arts, like small sculptures and instruments, to petroglyphs and painting may reflect this change in group mobility.


This demographic story also helps explain another mystery.  In addition to asking why painting began, we must ask why it remains unchanged for so long.  At many sites (like Chauvet above), we see essentially the same form recurring over thousands, even tens of thousands, of years.  This makes sense if rock art is not an expression of creativity, but rather of group identity.  Expressions of group identity (flags, emblems, religious iconography, beloved characters, and so on) tend to remain constant.  Egyptian art remained relatively constant for three millennia.  Once a population arrives at a stable way of life, there is little pressure to innovate, and much pressure to retain a constant identity.


I noted above that sculpture became representational before painting.  Humans had been making complex hunting tools for millennia, and making these non-functional items may have begun with the emergence of religion, trade, and other social practices associated with large populations.  The revolutionary idea of representational painting may have been a kind of inevitable accident.  As groups became less nomadic and began marking walls with abstractions, they may have eventually noticed that some forms resemble things seen in life.  Representational art reflects features of the human visual system: people and animals are represented in "canonical orientations" that allow for easy object recognition.  Many of the earliest representations are solid, rather than outlined, because the objects we see are do not have contours that differ in color from their surfaces (see the example from the Quinkan galleries above).  Perhaps all groups that make abstract marks on walls eventually see one that accidentally resembles the silhouette of a person or animal, which then gives rise (perhaps over thousands of years) to the eventual experiments with representational forms.  Inevitable accidents could also explain the prevalence of handprints in rock art (the example below is from Borneo, and others can be found around the world).  When working with pigments, it is inevitable that such prints would arise spontaneously when, for example, dry ochre blows over the hand of painter, leaving a hand-shaped impression.


Anyone who has followed recent work on rock art will wonder why I haven't mentioned a topic that has become extremely trendy in that literature: shamanism.  David Lewis-Williams has spearheaded a movement in recent decades, which interprets much rock art as related to shamanistic rites.  He points out, for example, that many rock paintings include geometric forms characteristic of the visual effects that occur when one is entering a hallucinogenic induced trance.  For example, he notes that many rock paintings include dots, which are akin to visual spots that appear in early stages of trance states (the image below comes from Peche-Merle, France).  Lewis-Williams also notes that rock art often occurs in places that are far removed from sites of habitation, and that animals depicted are often ones that would have been revered, but were not regularly hunted.  These, he surmised, has spiritual significance, and representational art was meant to resemble the hallucinations that arise when spiritual leaders enter into states of altered consciousness.


The shamanism hypothesis has been enormously influential and is now well known outside cave-art circles.  But, within cave art scholarship, it remains highly controversial.   Rock art expert Paul Bahn has been a leading critic.  He collaborated with neuroscientitist, Patricia Helvenston, to show that Lewis-Williams exaggerates the parallels between cave imagery and trance states.  He also argues that the painters of these caves did not have hallucinogens, and that contemporary shamans are not known to produce rock art (for another critic, see Alice Kehoe).

More concessive critics admit that some rock art may relate to shamanism but insist that this should not generalize.  Robert Layton, for example, has distinguished shamanism from totemism in depictions of animals, and he distinguishes both of these from secularism.  Then, using the distribution of animals in various regions where rock art has been found, he argues that different rock art serves different functions in different places (Layton's scheme appears above).  He argues that secular uses of imagery are characterized by use of a wide range of creatures, in equal numbers, painted in any place suitable for habitation.  The paintings of Lascaux are deep inside a cave and depict a small range of animals, suggesting a religious function.  But other sites show the secular pattern.


This brings us back to the Quinkan galleries.  The pattern here is secular.  As a visitor, I was expecting the art to be located in places that had overtly special significance.  Places that were usual, hidden when foraging in the area, and perhaps hard to get to by foot.  On the contrary, they appear on any wall that seems suitably flat and sheltered.  The image above shows the setting, with one of the major galleries just visible on the far left.  These walls also include images of many different kinds of animals.  No creature is singled out as sacred.  The Quinkans themselves are believed to be supernatural beings, but for these artists they may have seemed as real as kangaroos: they were believed to be residents of the forest, whose voices could be heard regularly, and whose mischief left regularly signs and introduced daily dangers.  The geometrical patterns appear in more or less random locations.  They do not look like hallucinogenic auras surrounding the creatures.  There is little reason to believe that these images relate to trance experiences.


This leaves us with an important reminder.  Rock art is found all over the world, but each place in different.  Each has its own style and its own function.  One cannot use Lascaux (above) as a model for the world.  Even within Australia, each region has its own character, and within a single site, there may be a history of different groups making work with unique significance.  I mentioned stylistic variation in the Quinkan galleries, and the contrast with the graceful Kimberley figures.   Kimberley also exhibits a second style, called Wandjina, that is quite different from both (below), and there is also the famous x-ray images in Kakadu National Park in Northern Australia (below).



Such variation rock art provides a spectacular demonstration of the fact that human pictorial practices cannot be given a unified analysis.  That is why it is risky to use the term "art" in this context.  The functions that we associate with "art" may be extremely different from the functions of these paleolithic paintings.  Some may have been used for rituals, some for instruction, and some may be ancient doodles.  Were any just made for aesthetic admiration, like contemporary galleries?  We will never know.


Given this diversity, the mystery of why humans began painting becomes both harder and easier.  It is easier, because painting is not a single cultural practice, but many.  There is no single thing to be explained--no human universal.  The puzzle becomes harder, however, because there are some striking similarities in rock art.  If these works lack a common function, why do they arise in so many places and why do they share features in common, such as depictions of animals painted in profile.  I've tried to sketch some answers, having to do with population growth and visual object recognition, but many puzzles remain.  It is crucial that we don't let our search for the origin of painting lead us to ignore variation.  Paleolithic rock art shows that humans faced similar challenges across the globe, and that our visual systems work in the same way.  But we mustn't forget particularity.  The figure from Split Rock (above), with outstretched arms and a gridded cloak, reminds us that each example of ancient art has its own character, its own meaning, its own charm.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On and On Kawara


Painting is an atemporal art, and, as such, ill suited to documenting the passage of time.  Early Renaissance painters used a technique called multiple narrative, wherein one canvas contained depictions of a sequence of events.   A stunning example is Filippo Lippi's Feast of Herod, which depicts Salome dancing and receiving the head of John the Baptist.   Klimt and others captured time by juxtaposing different figures at different stages of life development, as Three Ages of Woman.  Futurists played with dynamism and simultaneity, simulating the appearance of objects in motion.   The ultimate painter of time, however, was On Kawara.   Kawara documented the temporal flow of his own life by producing numerous series of highly repetitive, bureaucratically ritualistic works that enumerated daily trivialities with a kind of mechanical cruelty.  Though starkly dispassionate in form, Kawara's work is a moving testament to human mortality.  His own life came to an end this week.

Born in Japan in 1933, Kawara's early artistic efforts were figurative drawings, which, like much art of the '50s (think of Bacon, Dubuffet, and Giacometti) reflect an existential malaise brought on by the tragedy of war.  

He would soon shift radically away from figurative work, and turn towards conceptualism, becoming one of its most important practitioners.  On January 4, 1966, he began the Today series, for which he is most known.  Kawara would painstakingly paint a date in a plain font on a uniformly colored canvas.  Each canvas depicted the date of it's own creation, using the language and format of whatever country Kawara happened to be visiting, or Esperanto in the case of languages that use non-Roman type.  If a painting was not completed on the date it began, Kawara would destroy it.  On the back of each paining, he would affix a newspaper from the same day, with headlines (hidden from view), that chronicle the events of the last half century.

The first Today painting is reproduced above, along with an exhibition view from 1970.  The installation reflects the compulsivity of Kawara's project.  Though often called poetic, the work is more striking for its uncompromising austerity.  The work would be oppressively solemn if it weren't for the Sisyphusian absurdity of the effort.  Kawara spent over half a century painting numbers on canvas.


Other explorations of time followed the Today series.  For example, Kawara was a pioneer of mail art, and would send postcards to friends, gallertists, and art writers documenting the precise time he woke up.  The examples below are addressed to two German curators and fellow conceptual artist, John Baldessari.  As the images indicate, Kawara was a globe trotter.  He lived in Japan, Mexico, Europe, and, for many years, New York.


Kawara also found other ways to document his activities.  In a piece called I Met, he listed all the people he met for the duration of the project. Each of many pages documents one day's encounters.  In a related work, called I Went, Kawara documented his movements throughout the day, using city maps.


In a more overtly political series, Kawara preserved things that he read, usually newspapers, with headlines describing the triumphs and tragedies of our time--all without commentary.


Kawara also produced enormous calendars (or "Journals") stretching back and forwards in time.  He added yellow dots on those days he was alive, and he used other colors to indicate whether he had completed a painting (or two) on each given day.  


These calendars can be described as meta-paintings, since they are about Kawara's own production of paintings.  Another meta-project is a series of color samples, corresponding to pigments used in his Today series.

Kawara's work is obsessively biographical, but also studiously impersonal.  He tells us when he woke up each day, and where he went, but not what he did, thought, or felt--the normal contents of a biography.  He also resisted being photographed (the image at the top is a rare exception).  Such inscrutability is a theme of another series, called Codes, in which he deploys cryptic symbol systems.  He includes a series of love letters in an indecipherable notation (below, left).


The Codes series also includes text of a French poem in Braille (above, right).  This is an excersize in incomprehension.  Kawara could understand neither Braille nor French, so the meaning of the poem remains hidden to him and to most viewers (assuming most "viewers" cannot read Braille, and fewer still would have an opportunity to touch the surface of the work).  Kawara's Braille piece remind us that, as a conceptual artist, he was not particularly concerned with retinal dimensions of art.  Everything is an idea, and the primary medium by which he delivered ideas was linguistic. 

At the same time, the visual confrontation with Kawara's work, especially the Today series, can be quite stirring.  The endless succession of dates testifies to our own impermanence.  There is also a dizzying sense of our own insignificance when measured against the fullness of time.  In a recent project, Kawara filled compendious volumes with neatly typed sequences of numbers corresponding to a million years, both past and future.  Kawara's choice of neutral typography and repetitive execution can be read as a commentary on the tedium or banality of existence.  Or as a comment on time's indifference.  Or as an injunction to fill our passing days with things that matter.


The theme of impermanence, or more exactly mortality, is focally featured on one of Kawara's most poignant series.  Over several years, Kawara sent telegrams to friends boasting "I am still alive."  As with his postcards, we don't learn about the content of his life, but about it's persistence.  Pure being, one might say.  


Kawara continued delivering this message of persistence through the internet.  He opened a Twitter account in 2009, and he began to post tweets saying "I AM STILL ALIVE."  These continued to appear daily without further comment or elaboration for years.  On the day of his death, another one of those ordinarily reassuring missives appeared, and then again the day after.  Another appeared today, two days after his death (below).  Kawara's Twitter posts were evidently machine generated; either that or he is communicating with us from the other side.   Either way, the message is true.  Kawara is here to stay.  His obsessive documentation of time's passage has left an enduring mark in the history art.



Friday, July 4, 2014

Dix in Stuttgart


Stuttgart is not known as a major destination on the global art map.  It cannot compare to Berlin among German art centers, nor even to Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, and Kassel.  Still, it deserves more recognition.  Among its masterpieces, the city hosts one of the most impressive collections of paintings by Otto Dix.  Dix moved to the area after he was ousted from his Dresden professorship by the Nazis.  His house has been made into a small museum, but the real treasures live at the Kunstmuseum, a cubical building with a glass exoskeleton and several floors of galleries showing modern and contemporary art.  Before Dix died, Stuttgart negotiated to be granted the right to purchase any of his works that come on the market.  They have used this privilege well, amassing a collection of paintings that represent the artist's remarkable career.


Dix was born in 1891 and was en route to becoming a significant expressionist painter when the First World War broke out.  At that time, his subjects were often tame, even bucolic, but his years on the front lines would change all that.  Dix enlisted in the army and eventually became an officer in a machine-gun battalion, fighting on both the Eastern front and in Flanders.  Dix earned promotions and a medal for valor, and he sustained five injuries before being discharged.  While at battle, he documented what he saw, and it wasn't pretty.  His drawings, paintings, and prints of the period are among of the most chilling artistic representations of the horrors of war (see example above).  They rank second, perhaps, to Goya's Disasters of War.



Dix's depictions of war brought him fame and notoriety.  In 1923 a Cologne museum purchased a large painting called The Trench (reproduced above), which was condemned as unpatriotic by conservative critics.  The museum director bowed under pressure, returning the work to Dix's dealer.  It subsequently disappeared and is presumed to have been destroyed along with some 250 other works by the Nazis.  Dix was undaunted by the scandal and proceeded to paint comparable scenes of anihilation.  Two examples, The War and Flanders appear below. The War closely resembles The Trench and was intended as a deliberate rebuttal to Dix's critics.  The dead soldier hanging at the top of the canvas alludes more explicitly to the Christ figure in Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece, universally recognized as one of the most important works in the history of German art.  I was lucky to see the other painting, Flanders, while visiting Stuttgart.  It was on display at the Kunsthalle Würth in nearby Schwäbish Hall, which I visited with a carload of art-loving philosophers.  The sky in that painting shows two phases: blood red and tranquil blue, as if Dix is reminding Germans that there are two paths to choose from when moving past the tragedies of the Western front.



In the years immediately after the war, Dix fell in with members of the Dada movement, and this is reflected in his work.  One painting in Stuttgart, Pragerstrasse (1920), bears this out.   with a composition that resembles the anarchy of a dada montage (think Heartfield or early Höch).  Dix even experiments with three-dimensional collage elements as revealed in the detail below.



Pragerstrasse also contains what would soon become a Dix staple: images of war veterans with missing limbs.  Another image of war veterans was prominently displayed in the famous International Dada Fair in Berlin, 1920 (pictured below--Dix's painting can be see on left, with Höch seated below).  It too is believed to have been destroyed.



The experience of war was traumatic for Dix.  He was haunted by nightmares and he returns again and again to military themes in his work.  He also acquired a more cynical view of civilian life.  He painted prostitutes, the poor, the aged, and the oblivious bourgeoisie.  Though coming from humble means, he was himself something of a dandy and an amateur dancer, who immersed himself in the Weimar Republic's hedonistic night life.  Here young people sought parties and pearls as an escape from ugly memories of the past.  This was also the jazz age and the age of women's suffrage.  Women dressed in androgynous clothing, cut their hair short, and pursued open lesbian relationships.  Dix presents this world as only an insider could.  The most impressive painting in Stuttgart--perhaps his best work--is a monumental tryptic called Metropolis (or Großstadt), pictured below.  I also reproduced his sketch for the work, which is not on display there.



Dix paints with eviscerating accuracy (see the zoomable version here).  His tryptic is full of contrasts and contradictions.  Poverty and decadence, gyrating dancers and bodies broken by war, youth and age, hope and despair.  The left panel shows (below) a dog barking at a disabled veteran, surrounded by prostitutes.  The center shows fashionably attired revelers dancing to a jazz band.  A stereotyped African American drummer might be an alter ego for Dix, as suggested by his superb self-portrait Beauty, in which he stands in front of a drummer and wears an American suit.  The right panel (below) shows another war victim, with head clasped in hand, seated helplessly below a parade of fashionistas.


It is easy to see this work as satyrical and unforgiving.  But Dix is something of a visual journalist.  His paintings, unlike those of his contemporary Georg Grosz, do not so much as pass judgment on their subjects but rather expose them, as artists had rarely done before.  Other modernists had painted beggars and sex workers, but often in a highly romanticized way.  Here humanity is laid bare, and these anonymous people, living on society's margins gain a kind of dignity in their ugliness.  They are given flesh and blood for the first time.


This journalistic approach to painting was called the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit).  Dix was one of its pioneers and arguably its best practitioner.  He also developed new methods of painting--or rather old methods, reverting to the use of tempera with oil washes, which had been used by renaissance masters.  For many European modernists, the interwar period marked a return to more traditional techniques, but that usually signaled nostalgia for classical order.  In Dix's hands, traditional methods are used to deliver a world of disorder.  One might liken his works to the Flemish primitives.  LIke van Eyck, Bouts, and the German-born Memling, his figures are distorted, thinner or fatter than prevailing norms, hunched, angular and awkward.  The Metropolis brings to mind Memling's 15th century St. John the Baptist triptychs.  Like Dix's masterpiece, there is fallen figure on the left; a main panel with a female figure centered beneath a rectangular form;  and a constellation of colorful images on the right, which receded upward into the distance.  There are also arched ceilings, marble columns, and a floor that slants downward inviting viewers in.


Allusions to older art can also be found in Dix's Three Wenches, a study in anatomical variation among prostitutes.  The twisting body of the standing figure pays homage to the Flemish primitives again, and it also forecasts recent work by John Currin, such as the Dane, depicted below.  The round woman on the right evokes a more ancient source: neolithic venus figures, such as the wonderful Venus of Hohle, which lives in Stuttgart.  I reproduced both below.



Like the Flemish primitives, Dix was also skilled at portraiture (see the comparison here).  Though trending towards caricature, his portraits are undoubtedly his kindest works.  Dix portrays art dealers, industrialists, doctors, journalists, and other Weimar personalities with loving detail and refreshing honesty.  Several of these can be found in Stuttgart.  The most renowned is his portrait of the dancer, Anita Berber.


A celebrity at the time, Berber was known for he nude perfomances, her erotic films, and her seduction of many prominent male and female residents of Berlin including, allegedly Marlene Dietrich.  Berber was also a substance abuser and she died of tuberculosis surrounded by morphine needles at the age of 29.  I included a photograph alongside the Dix painting for comparison.  One wouldn't call his portrayal flattering, and his color scheme emphasizes her identity as a femme fatale.  On the other hand, he saw her an an embodiment of the time, and captures her strength in a way that brings eminence to her salaciously configured physique.


Equally compelling are some Dix's family portraits.  He painted his three children with adoration, but without saccharine idealization.   Dix's eye for the odd is as evident here as elsewhere.  His children stare blankly and stand with fixed doll-like postures (see the Nelly detail above and compare it to the more expressive photo of her by Hugo Erfurth on the right).  Dix plays with the cliché of innocence.  The portrait of Urus below is at once untarnished and strange.   Will these plump, wide-eyed creatures devolve into the misshapen adults that populate Dix's multi-figure compositions?  Born after one violent conflict, these kids are heading unknowingly into another; they will see their world torn apart by war.



The question of destiny is also brought out poignantly by Dix's portrait of a newborn child.  He captures better than any other artist the creepy, worm-like form of the neonate.  The one from the Stuttgart collection (below) is the best of several versions he produced at the time.  I also included a study for the work, which shows the child emerging from womb.  The style evokes Dix's war series.  Nelly, who is depicted here, would become a writer and artist, before dying at 31, during a botched abortion.


Dix probably didn't forecast the hell that was coming, but his early paintings can be read as a desperate plea.  Dix knew the ravages of war, and he was also sensitive to societal forces that could lead back in that direction.  This dark trajectory presumably made itself even more apparent when the Nazi's ousted him from his Dresden post.  Dix was labelled a degenerate artist and his paintings were features in the degenerate art exhibitions that travelled around Germany.  A tribute to those artists is currently on display at the Neue Galerie in New York, which also mounted an excellent Dix show a few years ago.


The Nazi campaign against degenerate art came with a positive agenda as well.  Art would henceforth glorify the Third Reich.  Under these conditions, artists who wished to continue painting had to conform.  Dix's work took a dramatic turn.  His figurative works took on more classical proportions and traditional themes, including as Biblical stories.  There is a disturbing example at Stuttgart from 1934, called the Triumph of Death.  In the foreground a baby is tenderly rendered, with a intertwined couple on the right.  To the left, a German soldier stands, with the scythe of Death--who lurches across the top of the canvas--curling around his neck.  There is also a woman farming and a dismembered man, suggesting, again, two options for Germany.



In the years that followed, Dix also began painting landscapes.  These efforts seem benign at first, and they capitulate to State-sanctioned aesthetic conventions.  Yet, they are also subtly continuous with Dix's earlier work in that they remain grimly foreboding.  The style has changed, but the message is thinly veiled: bad things are coming.  One shows a snowy village with dark birds looming overhead.  Another shows an apocalyptic storm brewing over the spires of a city.  The latter painting looks unmistakably similar to some of the war paintings that Dix's early detractors had condemned as unpatriotic.


After the war, Dix continued to paint until his death in 1969.  The Stuttgart collection includes one post-war painting, a 1969 image of Christ, which typifies his later style: religious allegories executed in an expressionist style.  The influence of cubism can also be seen, and little is left of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which Dix had spearheaded.  I must say I dislike these later paintings, and I find the Christian iconography distressingly opaque. Still, they are interesting.  A very good sampling is now on display at a spectacular show, which I caught in Munich a couple months back.  The show compares Dix to Max Beckmann and traces their parallels throughout their long careers.  Rather than ending with the colorful Christ, let me close with a juxtaposition from the Munich show: Dix and Beckman each giving their own version of a nude model in an art studio.   I prefer Beckman in general to Dix (a story for another day), but Dix wins in this head-to-head comparison.


In Dix's painting, there is an empty easel, and through it we see a capsized dummy (perhaps an artist's tool for anatomical accuracy).  Behind the dummy sits a corpulent model, with a hand raised with graceful irony (or is it an ominous salute?).  The work can be read as an allegory for Dix's art: the idealization of the anatomic dummy is abandoned, and usurped by a real human being, who poses proudly with all her imperfections in plain view.  The model appears through the easel, as if to say that Dix's paintings are a transparent window into the world as it really is.  This is an exaggeration, of course, but Dix can be celebrated for presenting things with a kind of unflinching directness, which those who seek only beauty are bound to miss.