‘Dix does not render his contemporaries with satire, it is our present time in its stupid everydayness that is already a grotesque satire.’ (Carl Einstein, Die Kunst des 20 Jahrhunderts, Berlin 1926, p. 107)
‘I wasn't at all interested in depicting ugliness. Everything I've ever seen is beautiful.’ (Otto Dix, quoted in Diether Schmidt, Otto Dix im Selbstbildnis, Berlin, 1981, p. 149.)
A sharply realist portrait, indicative of the Neue Sachlichkeit tendency in German art of the 1920s and of the idea of nuda veritas or ‘naked truth’, Sitzender Akt mit blondem Haar of 1931 is one of a prolonged series of provocative and disturbingly realistic paintings of nude women that Otto Dix made during the last years of the Weimar Republic. Painted at a time of great uncertainty and political instability in Germany, it is a meticulously well-crafted painting made in a deliberately Old Master-like style that harks back to the great German tradition of painting during the Renaissance and to the work of Albrecht Dürer in particular.
With its piercingly realistic image a distinctly nondescript Germanic-looking young woman, it is in part, an emulation of Dürer’s search to reveal the beauty of nature within even the most humble and commonplace of elements. ‘Nature holds the beautiful, for the artist who has the insight to extract it,’ Dürer famously remarked, thus, beauty lies even in humble, perhaps ugly things.’ In accordance with this principle, Sitzender Akt mit blondem Haar depicts a distinctly plain, thin and perhaps even slightly malnourished blonde woman. She is shown seated on a chair in Dix’s studio and unveiling her naked form in the manner of one of the 16th Century Venuses of that other great Germanic master of the Renaissance, Lucas Cranach.
Where, earlier, during the heyday of Weimar-period decadence and excess, Dix’s searing, analytical and objective eye had fastened upon and emphasised the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of unusual and extreme characters such as Anita Berber or Sylvia von Harden, in the late 1920s and 30s Dix deliberately began to focus upon more mundane and recognisably ordinary subjects. The early 1930s were a time of extreme political polarization and an ever-increasing threat of violence in Germany. In such an age, ordinariness and normality became qualities to be celebrated and cherished.
Dix’s productivity during this period illustrates this fact. By far the majority of his paintings from this period are realist paintings of nude women: stark representations of a literally, naked truth that assert his belief in what he called the central importance to painting of its subject-matter (‘das Objekt’). In ‘recent years’, Dix proclaimed, ‘one catchphrase has motivated the present generation of creative artists. It urges them to “find new forms of expression!” I very much doubt however, whether such a thing is possible. Anyone who looks at the paintings of the Old Masters, or immerses himself in the study of their works, will surely agree with me… The new element in painting lies in the extension of the subject area, an enhancement of those forms of expression already present in essence in the Old Masters. For me, “Das Objekt” is primary and determines the form. I have therefore always felt it vital to get as close as possible to the thing I see. The What matters more to me than the How. Indeed, the How arises from the What’ (Dix, ‘The Object is Primary’ Berliner Nachtausgabe, 1927, in C. Harrison & P. Wood, eds., Art In Theory 1900-1990, London, 1997, p. 390).
In 1927, Dix had become a teaching professor at the Dresden Academy. This period, he later reflected, was the happiest time of his life and, at the academy, Dix – the former-Dadaist painter of deliberately crude, vulgar and ugly paintings – embraced the discipline, rigour and finesse of Old Master practice. In fact, he sought to translate and extend such old-fashioned methods and techniques into a piercingly precise and modern form of realism. Throughout the years 1928 to 1932, Dix was also engaged upon a magnum opus. This was the production of the vast war triptych that now hangs in the Galerie Neue Meister in Dresden. A veteran of the First World War, Dix had undertaken the creation of this huge, grotesque anti-war masterpiece in protest against the then burgeoning Nazi Party’s increasingly vocal celebration of war and militarism and what he saw as people beginning to forget the horrors of the recent past. In addition to this work, in 1930, Dix had painted an allegory on the Dürer-esque theme of Melancholia depicting a nude and a mannequin in the studio with a fiery, apocalyptic landscape outside the window. The following year, he painted a grim, ominous, grisaille-tone self portrait with a crystal ball and, after the Nazis came to power in 1933, Dix completed this cycle of gloomy, prophetic pictures with images of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Triumph of Death.
Dix’s embracing of such Renaissance themes was part of a pervasive tendency in Germany at this time to look back to the Germanic tradition in art. It was a tendency argued for in many circles at this time, including the Nazis and also their fiercest critics – artists such as Dix and his old Dadaist friend, George Grosz. Indeed, in 1931, Grosz wrote on this subject that, ‘it often seems to me that we are living in an age like the end of the Middle Ages…that humanistic ideas are dying out. People set no great store by the Rights of Man that were so ecstatically proclaimed a century ago... Of course, you cannot live as a Dutch Old Master today, but...in this faithless materialistic age, you must show people their own hidden, diabolical face…so why not hark back to our own forebears and continue a ‘German’ tradition’ (Grosz, ‘Among other Things a Word in Favour of German Tradition,’ Das Kunstblatt, 1931). Dix, too saw in the art of old German masters such as Dürer, Cranach, Hans Baldung Grien, Albrecht Altdorfer and others, an important method of showing things the way they really are. In the light of this he had begun looking closely at Dürer, even adapting his own signature into a Dürer-like monogram as can be seen in Sitzender Akt mit blondem Haar. And, as he told Grosz at this time, he had also begun to read Nietzsche again, the philosopher who had warned against all forms of idealistic illusion and who had once written that, ‘the real human is of far greater value than the ‘desired’ human of some previous ideal…up to now the ideal has in fact been the world-and human-denying force, the poisonous mist covering reality, the great seduction to nothing’ (F. Nietzsche, posthumous fragment, 1887- 1888, quoted in P. Gutbrod, Otto Dix, The Art of Life, Ostfildern, 2010, p. 117).
Nudes from this period in Dix’s work, such as Sitzender Akt mit blondem Haar, all function, therefore, like anchors of ordinariness in the midst of these times of increasing turbulence and uncertainty. As one of Dix's pupils at the Academy where Dix taught remembered, at the regular Monday morning model markets, Dix would always pick out for himself, those models whose bodies had been branded by their lives: widows, pregnant women, worn-out prostitutes, or those trying to hide their age under a cosmetic facade. As Dix himself recalled of this period, it was ‘the sad and the everyday [that] enticed and inspired me’ (Dix quoted in F. Löffler, Otto Dix: Life and Work, New York, 1982, p. 11) But also, as Paul Westheim noted of Dix’s portraits, there is also in his work, ‘an unmistakable tendency not to treat the model as a mere object, but to look inside and around them, to expose in turn, the peculiar, frenzied and unruly spirit of the age’ (P. Westheim, Das Kunstblatt, 1926, p. 145, quoted in Otto Dix retrato de Hugo Erfurth exh. cat, Madrid, 2008, p. 184, n. 70).
In Sitzender Akt mit blondem Haar Dix’s naked blond model sits Cranach-like with a veil in front of a hell-fire-red curtain. Seeming to gaze with a mixture of apprehension and weariness at something in the distance, this modern-Teutonic Venus, though naked, casts a distinctly unerotic figure. The relationship between the erotic and the creative is one that is frequently explored in Dix’s paintings of nudes at this time and a theme that culminates in a repeated series of self-portraits with naked models that Dix made throughout the 1930s. Here, Dix crudely alludes to the sexual nature of this figure in the way in which he has depicted the folds of the drapery falling over her lap.
Dix’s skill in depicting this convincingly transparent drapery reflects his complete mastery of the subtle glazing technique using mixed media that he had first adopted in the mid-1920s. This technique was a difficult, slow and painstaking process heavily reliant upon a complete command of draughtsmanship. Making use of a mixture of oil and tempera, it too derived from Old Master painting and, as Dix himself explained required a sequence of processes that began with an ‘exact drawing after the model’, which was then, ‘transferred to the canvas, [where] the underpainting (grisaille) was applied also using the model. Only then came the essential element; painting without the model. I have learned through experience that when one paints from the model one sees here and there, this and that – and gradually everything becomes worse and much too complicated – always less simple and big. Consequently I let it be, to complete the painting without a model’(Dix, interview with Maria Wetzel, 1965 in Otto Dix, exh. cat., Munich, 1985, pp. 284-290).
George Grosz, who met up with Dix during the summer of 1931, later remembered witnessing Dix employing this painstaking method on a painting that, from his description, might even have been Sitzender Akt mit blondem Haar. ‘I once saw Otto “Hans Baldung” Dix in Dresden’, Grosz recalled, and how, ‘with his mahl-stick held fast in one hand and a special brush that he had adapted for the purpose in the other, he painted fine curls of hair…in the manner of Dürer. With everything going like the devil, the image appeared in no time, and all the emerging details were mastered, as they should be, almost without looking, as in braiding or basket weaving… If the brush becomes disobedient or gets too heavily laden, then it doesn’t work. Didn’t Dürer speak somewhere about a brush that he brought from Italy, especially for hair and curls? Dix draws the motif first in a thin layer of tempera then layers cold and warm tones over it using a thin mastic glaze. He was the only Old Master that I have seen using this technique’ (Grosz, ‘Letter to Arnold Rönnebeck’, 8 November, 1943, in H. Knust, George Grosz, Briefe, 1913-1959, Berlin, 1979, p. 324).
In his landmark work on Dix’s life and work, the artist’s friend and biographer Fritz Löffler singled out Sitzender Akt mit blondem Haar from other of Dix’s paintings of nudes from this period for being ‘Mannerist’ in contrast to the apparent ‘classicism’ of other nudes such as Sitzender Akt mit dunklem Haar of 1930. ‘The precious way in which the fingertips hold the cloth,’ Löffler writes, ‘the excessive leanness and length of the upper body are characteristic of a Mannerist mode’ (F. Löffler, op cit, p. 88). It is however, the surprising contrast between the model’s aged face, seemingly too old and world-weary in comparison with her otherwise youthful body that most shocks and surprises in this work. This vanitas-themed juxtaposition is one that Dix had used repeatedly in his work ever since his famously controversial painting, Mädchen vor dem Spiegel of 1921. It was a juxtaposition intended, as here too probably, to awaken in the viewer a shared sense of fascination and curiosity about how, throughout life, both beauty and ugliness, often sit side-by-side.