Otto Dix at the De La Warr Pavilion

It was raining in Bexhill; nonetheless, the De La Warr Pavilion was promenading splendidly.  It’s a spacious and grand building, but inside it feels (and smells) rather municipal.  It suffers from too many blank walls, giving it an air of emptiness:  a few paintings (by artists and local school children) would make it busy and warm, and add to, rather than subtract from, its grandeur.  A few signs wouldn’t go amiss, either:  we found the Otto Dix exhibition through sheer perseverance (it was, rather ungrandly, next to the cafe-cum-restaurant).

The first and second Galleries were taken up with contemporary art of variable quality, with an exhibition name of stunning crassness:  ‘I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart.’  Yes, really.  Those who are familiar with the poem, and even more so with Butterworth’s amazing setting of it, will know how heart-rending and horrible it is.  In the gift shop there were for sale yellow t-shirts with – I kid you not – ‘I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart.’  Sack the person who thought of this:  they clearly have no soul, no understanding of poetry and little of life and death.

And now on to life and death.  When we finally found Otto Dix, he was 19 pictures of Great War hideousness.  19 was about the right number:  enough to illustrate all sorts of war horrors, but not too many to dilute them.  There were corpses from gas attacks, bombs, guns, hypothermia;  soldiers and civilians.  The pictures (aquatints and etchings) were crafted so that they took some looking at to let their full stories emerge.  The – from the distance – beautiful mountain scene was in fact a load of dead soldiers strewn over mud.  The abandoned trench was a sinking grave with rags turning into vultures and grim reapers.  The retreating soldiers were stepping on corpses, not ground.  Was the poor soldier sitting by a skeleton on a freezing mountain eating his lunch or spewing it up?

These images should be known to every pupil studying the First World War – not least as a reminder that the Germans had a foul time, too, and that the whole thing was utterly pointless and grim.

A slight disappointment was the accompanying leaflet.  It gave very little contextual information, and was in several instances rather confusing.  A woman asked me what the things were in the ‘Gefunden beim Grabendurchstich’ (translated as ‘Found while digging a trench’), as the leaflet had said ‘To this day, the ground along the Western Front is filled with surprises’.  She’d seen them as bodies, but thought from the blurb that it was a more optimistic picture.  It wasn’t.  They were bodies – as the German caption makes clear:  ‘Graben’ means ‘grave’.  This word featured in another caption:  ‘Zerfallender Kampfgraben’, translated as ‘Collapsed trenches.’ ‘Collapsing war-grave’ would be more accurate and less blandly neutral.  The ‘Appell der Zurückgekehrten’ (‘Roll call of returning troops’) was a line-up of mentally and physically wrecked soldiers, being called by a smartly-dressed, intact sergeant.  Presumably these troops were returning to the front line, and the point is that they should not have been.  The leaflet said ‘The war took a great toll on all its participants.  Here the living are barely distinguishable from the dead.’  What dead?  There are no dead in this picture.

Unfortunately, the leaflet was written by a moron.  The pictures, however, were drafted by a genius.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Otto Dix at the De La Warr Pavilion

  1. Corrina Connor

    I would like to see this exhibition, as I’ve only seen the Dix Krieg prints in a book, and they’re extraordinary. Alongside the watercolours of the Gillies Archive, showing British soldiers recovering from facial wounds and reconstructive surgery – these are some of the strongest images of the War.

    I’m wondering about ‘Kampfgraben’, as I think it might be a double meaning. It crops up the rather limited literature that we – in the English-speaking side of things – encounter about the German experience of the War. The noun ‘Graben’ can mean a ditch or a moat as well as a trench or a grave (‘Tiefseegraben’ is ‘deep sea trench’ for example) and ‘Kampfgraben’ was used to refer to the battle trench in WWI and WWII. However, the fact that trenches became graves for so many, and so often fulfilled both roles simultaneously, gives a painful ironic twist to the meaning of ‘Graben’; a translation of ‘Collapsed Trenches’ seems to reflect that irony: the structures which theoretically provided men with varying degrees of shelter whilst they were alive would also be the graves of many. Following many skirmishes or retreats, enemy soldiers would often ‘capture’ a trench only to find it full of recently- or long-dead bodies.

    I read this print as an intense and macabre depiction of what I sometimes feel is the obscenity of war – not only the wasted lives, but the fact that so many dead were left to decay without any sort of proper and decent burial in the very trenches which were constructed to offer some form of protection.

    • Phoebe Clapham

      That’s interesting about ‘Graben’, Corrina. One of the Dix prints depicts a soldier who has reconstructive facial surgery… he looks as if half his face has been torn off and someone else’s face has been roughly sewn on in its place, which is rather a powerful metaphor for the physical and psychological effects of the war.

  2. Definitely what you say – that comes out very strongly in the picture. That’s also the case with the Gefunden usw – the bodies could have been buried, but could have been just left. I think he gets the scale of the massacre very well.

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