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Customer Review

TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 February 2013
The review is of the 25th Anniversary edition re-issued in 2012.

Quality and cost are not usually synonymous when considering art books. Often a book looks, feels and even smells wonderful but then one reads the price! On-line shopping and price comparisons have greatly improved the situation but, even so, there are a number of art books which I would love to own and whose prices I regularly check, just in case.

However, books by Taschen are the exception, being of very high production quality, having texts that are informed by scholarship, contain many high-quality coloured illustrations and frequently explore a much broader range of works than is the case with competing publishers.

Such is the case with Taschen's 25th Anniversary edition on the German Expressionist, Otto Dix, reissued in 2012. Dix's work, because of its reliance on the cruellest naturalistic depiction, is sometimes confused with that of with George Grosz or Max Beckmann. However, in contrast to the revolutionary, Grosz, who thought his art to be "an effective weapon... against the stupidity of the people of our time" and stressed the "drastic and unmitigated harshness and lovelessness" of his objects, Dix, by nature a sceptic, was diametrically opposed to ideological posturing.

One of the great virtues of this book, written by Eva Karcher and translated from the German by Doris Linda Jones and Jeremy Gaines, is its very broad sweep. In a clear exposition of "'Sachlichkeit' - Objectivity and the Age", the author presents this as a means of providing an objective quality to the subjective experiences of reality which was particularly important to enable a "generation who had been shaken in its very foundations, morally as well as physically and emotionally, by the inferno of the First World War" to regain a semblance of stability and find an enduring social identity.

Thereafter, the book plots a chronological journal through Dix's life which took him from birth in Untermhaus, near Gera, Eastern Germany, in 1891 to his death in Singen, Germany in 1969. This development is considered through 9 sections: "Dix's Childhood and Early Works"; "The First World War", 1914-1918; "Dresden", 1919-1921; "Dusseldorf", 1922-1925; "Berlin", 1925-1927; "Dresden", 1927-1932; "The `Big City' Triptych", 1927/8; "The 1930s and 1940s; Inner Emigration" and "The Later Years". There is an illustrated Chronology and a Bibliography.

Following an initial phase when the artist's work was influenced to varying degrees by 16th century German painting, Art Nouveau, Futurism and Cubism ("The Cannon", 1914), Dix enlisted voluntarily in 1914 and, like many of his generation, his subsequent wartime experiences affected the subsequent direction and intensity of his art.

To have commissioned, or received, a portrait from Dix or any of the other German Expressionists was very risky. Considering the many portraits in this book, including "Alfred Gunther", 1919; "Dr Hans Koch", 1921; "The Artist's Parents", 1924; "Anita Berber", 1925; "Theodor Daubler", 1927; "The Actor Heinrich George as Terje Wiggen", 1932, to "Erich Heckel", 1947, are all gripping psychological studies, and this is equally true of his many self-portraits.

Looking at the artist's paintings of the 1920s and 1930s from a perspective that includes an awareness of the political excesses of the last 80 years and the extreme lack of sentimentality of some art movements during the same period, Dix's works retain the capacity to shock and its says a great deal about the avant-garde public and private collectors of the time that so many have survived.

By painting dismembered and decomposed bodies of soldiers ("The Trench", 1923, a reoccurring motif), Dix caused such outrage that its owner, the Wallrauf-Richardtz Museum, placed it behind a curtain. Two years later, there was further controversy when, in a foreshadowing of the Nazi's attacks on Degenerate Art, Konrad Adenauer, post-War Chancellor of the German Federal Republic but then Mayor of Cologne, cancelled the purchase and forced the resignation of the Museum's Director. In 1939, this work was purchased from the exhibition of Degenerate Art but has subsequently disappeared.

Dix's continuing return to subjects of military (and economic) defeat and disaster, and its effect on the living and the surviving are rightly considered amongst the most powerful of any age and they almost crackle and burn from these pages.

In considering Dix's paintings, and he is not an artist to glance at, one is constantly surprised at the different painterly aesthetics which he was able to handle, maybe compartmentalise, at the same time. In 1935, he painted "Randegg in the Snow with Ravens" which shows the influence of Breugel but with swooping birds, symbolising the death and destruction, rather than rejoicing peasants. In 1939, Dix and a friend were arrested following the attempt on Hitler's life and interrogated in prison by the Gestapo before being released but remained on their secret list. The author says little about the psychological consequences of such situations or the artist's life during the war; he was conscripted, at the age of 54, and spent the last months of the war as a prisoner-of-war, recorded in "Self-portrait as a Prisoner of War", 1947.

Inevitable, Dix found it very difficult to return to normal life as was the case for his contemporaries and, though he continued to paint, works from this latter period are relatively few in this book. It may indeed be that the quality of his work suffered, and he was certainly treated badly by the art establishment. However, one should seek to evaluate his work during these latter years on its merits and of its time, rather than in comparison to the breadth and depth of his oeuvre between 1915-1935. To this extent his later works are due for re-evaluation. This book does not attempt this but it, perhaps, represents a stage in this process - and Taschen is just the publisher to undertake this.

"Masks in Ruins" of 1946 reflect the work of Ensor, then just 3 years from his death. Religious themes occur, as in "The Mocking of Christ", 1948, and "Ecce Homo III" of a year later. A decade later, he received stained-glass and mural commissions. In the last years of his life, he finally received the awards and public recognition that Dix, the artist and the man, had long deserved. The final work in the book, "Pregnant Woman", 1966, shows his familiar naturalistic representation had not dimmed. Still cruel and revealing "warts and all", but certainly not without feeling.

This marvellous book has provided many new insights into this artist, who is perhaps too easily pigeon-holed as a major German Expressionist of the pre-World War II period.
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