For me, two of the most pungent, original works of the 1920s — if one has to single out works that epitomize its contradictory artistic concerns — are Max Ernst’s Oedipus Rex (1922) and Otto Dix’s 1924 portfolio of 50 engravings dealing with War in all its stunning terror. On the one hand, we have a painting whose meaning is somewhat obscure — but not entirely, for Oedipus Rex is the hero of Sophocles’ tragedy — and on the other hand we have an avalanche of images whose meaning is horrifically clear. Dix surrounds us with the violence of war — the trench warfare of the First World War, in which he served, and whose brutality he witnessed first-hand. His images are as fantastic as they are factual — expressionistically fierce and journalistically precise — making them all the more nightmarish. There is an air of uncanniness to Dix’s pictures that makes them more than records of an inhumane event. He takes us behind the scene of war — the parades and speeches and rationalizations — putting us right in the trenches, where the obscene ugliness of battle becomes self-evident. We are attacked by storm troopers wearing gas masks, encounter corpses, almost become entangled in barbed wire, and sit knee-deep in mud and filth: “you are there, whether or not you want to be,” Dix’s confrontational, morbid images shout. They document a highly contagious social pathology which can claim us as its victim at any moment. The gloom of his scenes — they are marvels of black and white, and above all acid gray — conveys a hopeless state of mind as well as the atmosphere of a society bent on destroying itself.
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