Otto Dix at the Neue Galerie

Decades before Andres Serrano dipped a crucifix in urine, Robert Mapplethorpe stuffed a bullwhip up his posterior or Tracey Emin spun her dirty underwear into stardom, Otto Dix figured out how to gin up a good controversy and twist it to his advantage. Yet the splendid retrospective now at New York’s Neue Galerie – the first North American museum show devoted exclusively to Dix – proves that he transcended his own opportunism. He sought scandal and stumbled on profundity; he attempted cynicism and produced some of the 20th century’s most pointed and passionate work.

Demobbed in 1918 after four years as a machine gunner, Dix was eager to make up for lost time, but his career limped along. He seethed with envy as the Berlin Dadaists gobbled media attention. “We have to beat the Berliners!” he announced to his Dresden friends. “I’m not getting anywhere. My paintings are unsellable! I’ll become either famous or infamous.”

Canny enough to recognise that war had not exhausted the public’s taste for horror, Dix turned his consummate skill on a shattered world. He detailed Europe’s traumas with a bloodthirsty virtuosity that rivalled Goya’s in “Disasters of War”. A bomber skims a shattered town; bodies spill from lovingly detailed rubble; a helmeted skeleton grips its rusting rifle; a machine-gun squad hauls its gear over a mountain of corpses. Dix insisted that these harrowing prints bore no agenda. “I am neither political nor tendentious, nor pacifistic, nor moralising, nor anything else,” he insisted. But he was ambitious.

Dix’s war pictures merge fascination and revulsion into a form of shocking entertainment, and he was just as equivocal about peacetime. He set his sights on sex murderers, rapists, prostitutes, johns and the legless trunks of mutilés de guerre who troubled the streets of German cities. Dissipation oozes from flabby breasts and bulging, red-rimmed eyes, while the war veterans’ wounds leak wretchedness and neglect.

He sustained himself on whores, luxuriating in the texture of their puckered bellies and in the contrasts between heavy make-up and ashen skin. He vacillated between exploitation and critique. He used prostitutes’ bodies for monetary gain and also to broadcast a straight-laced moralism.

Forced to defend himself against charges of obscenity in 1922, he argued: “The idea ... is to depict the whole ghastly, dehumanising effect of prostitution ... to demonstrate the hideous consequences on their minds and bodies. The women are shown in the abject state their lifestyle has reduced them to: apathetic and depraved ... the entire presentation is intended to be revolting.”

This is so spectacularly disingenuous that you can’t even call him a hypocrite. He is candid about his contradictions, depicting himself at play with the very women he pities and condemns. He celebrates his appetites and also deplores them in a festival of self-disgust, then points his stream of venom outward, too. His pictures bare the festering corruption at the core of the republic – a message that wasn’t lost on Weimar art critics.

“Dix gives his era – which is only a mockery of one – a resolute and technically well-crafted kick in its swollen belly, wrings confessions of vileness from it, and frankly portrays its people,” Carl Einstein wrote in 1923.

Those people glitter and sag in Dix’s portraits, which together accumulate into a seductively damning picture of German decadence. The protagonist of “Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin” doesn’t so much loll as leer. Slung forward in a feline crouch, she rests her head on one stubby, masculine hand while the other tenses like a claw on a spotted animal hide. Sloping, catlike eyes peer from beneath a thick copper fringe, while a slash of crimson stains the lower part of her face. A dog with blood-red eyes pants viciously in a corner.

Dix salutes Goya’s “Clothed Maja” and Manet’s “Olympia” here, but his take on feminine sexuality is more disturbing. This aggressive odalisque is a proxy for the liberated “New Woman” of the 1920s, a type Dix evidently viewed with suspicion and contempt. When he wasn’t portraying her as a predatory beast or a wizened tart, he made her the victim of a sex crime.

Despite such overwhelming evidence, it would be a mistake to label Dix a misogynist, since he lavished loathing on men, too, and especially on himself. His rigid, chiselled features reappear in the guise of killer, acrobat, debauched sailor, prole and peasant. He is always glacial and aloof, even when he catches himself in the act of painting pictures that seethe. The essayist Willi Wolfradt registered Dix’s dizzying clash of passion and disinterest in 1924 when he wrote: “The portraits are like wanted posters in their inciting objectivity, ruthlessly recording all ‘identifying characteristics’. They are hair-raisingly life-like and yet look monumentally surreal.” What makes Dix so bewitching is his merciless, mud-seeking eye combined with the refined precision of his hand. He exaggerates nothing, insisting that we see the world in all its garishness. The nude is not noble in his eyes, and the in-exorable deterioration of the flesh mirrors society’s corruption.

Dix’s morbid honesty anticipated artists as different as Lucian Freud and Diane Arbus. They, too, practised a negative form of narcissism by projecting self-hatred on to their unfortunate subjects. All three are giants of ambivalence, simultaneously wallowing in weirdness and wrinkling their nose at it. They remain perpetually timely. The world has never known a shortage of ugliness, cupidity and lies, which is why Dix’s acid attacks on Weimar’s rot feel as fresh as ever.

‘Otto Dix’, Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, until August 30,

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