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.