However different the society’s they pictured, both Otto Dix and Toulouse Lautrec represented a society in which the proletariat underclass or the under-underclass served the bourgeois upper echelons. And, war and sex, in the sense of romantic realism were seen to be fundamental realities of human nature.Its hard to deny the importance of technology, it determines our modern life, both hi-life and low-life, but it has produced an art that embodies the modern sense of urban estrangement. But is this satirizing of the modern condition merely a form of impotent revolution or is there something more profound beyond the background noise?…
Expressionism at this time represented a reaction to the old, outdated bourgeois norms and the naive belief in progress. The catastrophes brought about by the First World War, the destruction of humanity, were only too evident and too recent. Expressionists such as Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch and Otto Dix, were attempting to create a new vision of the individual, one that would be identified by social responsibility and compassion for others. Creative art, in the age of Freud, was seen as evolving out of immediate inner experiencing and emotional dynamics. The basic themes of expressionism were feeling, intuition, subjectivity, fantasy. It is what Benjamin called the “optical unconscious”, in this context signifying the ability to render visible the invisibilities structured into their work as read out of the context of their time, and then being crystallized into the realm of the political.
Donald Kuspit:In Dix, the poor proletariat serves in the military — as he did as a machine-gunner in World War I — that supports the wealthy bourgeois, among them the fat cats pictured in the central panel of his masterpiece Grossstadt (1927-28) . … Dix remained a devoted family man all his life, … For all his morbidity, he was in love with life, as ….In Toulouse-Lautrec, lively proletariat performers entertain the jaded wealthy bourgeois, giving them a revitalizing “kick”: it is as though the performers were vigorously acting out the life the passive bourgeois audience lacks — raising the emotionally dead with their own intense, daring aliveness, uncoiling like a spring during the performance. Dix’s 1922 “Circus” series shows the same fascination with daredevil, life-intensifying — and life-risking — performers. Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/otto-dix3-24-10.asp
By Dix’s time, the phenomena of self-alienation and self-realization were being discussed. The individual was no longer seen as an abstract being but within his or her concrete societal environment was viewed above all as a working being, and a part of the work environment or workforce,at least from a leftist perspective.The figure of the prostitute can serve as a good example. The prostitute was arguably a most pervasive signifier of Weimar urban modernity, one which was taken up by Walter Benjamin, embodying for him the particular contradictions of consumer capitalism at the time alienation was being linked to technology. We have only to think of the work of Grosz and Dix’s representations of prostitutes to get a sense of the significance of the figure of the prostitute in the culture of the period, in particular in
relation to the urban setting.
Kuspit:For both Dix and Toulouse-Lautrec, the underclass — exemplified by the black jazz musicians performing for the white fat cats and their bejeweled and gowned white ladies in Dix’s triptych and the black dancer Toulouse-Lautrec depicted — is more vital than the upper class, which borrows, exploits, and finally cannibalizes its life. Even the prostitutes both artists depicted are more vital than their customers — vitalize the sexuality of their male customers with their female sexuality, as though recharging a failed battery — however more grotesquely vital Dix’s prostitutes are than Toulouse-Lautrec’s. His are famously at rest between customers, while Dix’s strut their stuff on the wings of the triptych, along with crippled veterans — men who have been castrated by World War I, who have lost their legs and are no longer able to line up and parade as Dix’s prostitutes do. They are also an ugly horrifying waste product of the war. Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/otto-dix3-24-10.asp
Ultimately, this was a materialist metropolis; colonialist, patriarchal. As seen with Walter Benjamin,and even earlier with Baudelaire, the prostitute here is the most significant figure, embodying the alienated circulation of bodies, commodities, and money in modern society. But there is also a powerful fear that can be discerned here that underlies the misogyny.There is a linking of conceptions of gendered modernity
directly to questions of race. Women are, according to Benjamin, primarily sexual, which makes prostitution such a danger to women. Because the relationship is determined by money and not by heterosexual marriage, Be
Fears of women’s sexuality and the subversion of gender boundaries and hierarchies flow together here with fears of racial degeneration.In a world in which everyone does his own thing — a world in which no one seriously relates to anyone else — a world of casual, “experimental” relationships, sexual and otherwise — human beings cannot help becoming emotional monsters. Dix, like almost all the German New Objectivists, underscores the theme that women are innately grotesque , and by extension that modern individuals are distorted, isolated and inherently absurd. Capitalism and the emerging technologies permeate all of Dix’s paintings, appropriating human presence and dehumanizing the body at the same time.
A brief look at prostitution in Weimar Germany brings out these differences from the sociological vision, and returns us to some of the issues raised earlier. Officially illegal in Weimar Germany, prostitution was policed and regulated in a host of ways, configured primarily through discourses and practices of hygiene. Spatially, prostitution was contained in specific districts, generally located adjacent to working class areas (prostitutes being of course workers themselves). These material practices of containment were articulated with medicalized concerns with hygiene in which fears of syphilis, moral hygiene, and racial degeneration sustained and extended the marginalization of prostitutes, and also served to limit women’s access to and performance in public space more generally. The class politics here was also significant; it was only from segments of the working class that support for prostitutes as workers emerged, but in these contexts the proliferation of eugenic discourses also served to drive a wedge between these different groups of workers by physically and morally zoning them apart. Eugenics was thus also part of class warfare. These connections are, however, largely lost in Simmel’s or Benjamin’s accounts.Read More:http://www.culturalstudies.ca/proceedings04/pdfs/heynen.pdf
Kuspit:But there is a good deal of subliminal Sturm und Drang in New Objectivity portraits — a sort of expressionistic hang-over, conveyed by the hot-under-the-collar character of many of them — that suggests an unresolved and unhappy relationship with reality. More particularly, uncertainty about industrial reality, and perhaps hatred of modern reality per se. Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/kuspit12-13-06.asp