REVIEW: Gesumkunstwerk: Neue Galerie’s OTTO DIX

The Poet, The Dancer, The Business Man
The Poet, The Dancer, The Business Man

Otto Dix at Neue Galerie: March 11 to Aug.30

Leah Ammon shrugs when I ask her why the press release for Neue Gallerie’s Otto Dix show does not mention the layered sensuality of sounds and scents, effected by Frederico de Vera’s exhibition design.

The Neue concentrates on addressing the art and the artist in its press releases, the exuberant Communications Director tells me. But it is in line with museum director Renée Price’s philosophy of seeing each show as a Gesumkunstwerk – an entire artwork in itself. I would ask her how to spell that, but I don’t want to damp her very infectious enthusiasm.

She wafts a muddy scent toward us from a vent near the floor and we hear crickets while we look at Dix’s WWI works on paper in pencil and watercolor: the lonely sense of abandonment that Dix would have experienced in those dark trenches is indeed heightened as the atmosphere grows contemplative.

The thing to remember is that the Neue Galerie is class. Truly. It wears its estate pearls quietly. What might be immediately judged as a perhaps superfluous attempt to amplify the drama of Dix’s already powerful works, proves, actually, to be an understated design meant to place the viewer into a context which erases the white box.

Ammon tells me that, this uncelebrated Gesumkustwerk approach is signature to the Neue and has been used often, usually in the form of music.

The Neue’s Otto Dix show is a triumph of this unobtrusive design philosophy that uses scent, sound, and music along with a timeline-defying layout to highlight the experience and the story of the artist’s inspirations: WWI, and the Weimar era.

The success of organizing Dix’s works by four themes: WWI, Portraiture, Sexuality, and Allegory, is most strongly borne out when one is surrounded by his stunning portraits. Seeing them all together one is struck by the individuality of each one, and the great variety of methods which Dix freely availed himself of: pencil strokes are used on fine hair, translucent veins signal the vulnerability of a child, while painterly build up is used to express fullness and wrinkling. The painted eyes of some, built up to alarming heights create a stare that had to be inspired by a very real presence, and pallid and burning colors signal strongly the spirit of each personality.

A painting of the Poet Iwar von Luecken is long, weightless and etherial, a la, El Greco, while another, the daunting portrait of  Dancer Anita Berber is an almost mannerist study of snaky sensuality, slathered in a defiant bold red. Others are detailed in some spots and painterly in others. Works on wood are scored and layered to create fullness and deeply creased wrinkles. In many of these, the palpable heft of women’s flesh adds a fascinating contrast to Dix’s self portraits which are so posed and so flat that he seems at once exposed and armored in objectivity.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the Neue’s design shop is selling an Estée Lauder exclusive Berlin Red Lipstick and Bauhaus-style compact. They form a nice complement to the unforgettable Anita Berber portrait. The museum has unique access to cross-marketing opportunities with Estée Lauder through co-founder and president, Ronald S. Lauder. Asked about this, and how it may be viewed as a possible conflict of interest, Ms. Ammon is unfazed: it’s an “obvious connection,”– the style and the period, and cosmetics. I also find it in keeping with the spirit of Dix’s many soldier and girl paintings, fun, bold, and not too sweet.

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