Many years ago the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibit that occupied an embarrassed corner of one of its galleries.
It was a showing of German art, from that pocket of time between the World Wars. No one wanted to see those pictures. Art that carries its truth like an unextracted knife is not popular. What I saw were reminders of the green-hued visions the artists saw in the trenches, or the equally gangrenous sights trapped inside their minds like a poisonous fog. Those memories could only be faced if they bled onto the canvas, or were torn from a lithographer's stone.
I visited this collection five times.
One artist interested me in particular. His name was Otto Dix. He treated his disturbing subjects with skill and delicacy. Like Egon Schiele's twisted nudes, they were shocking and magnificent.
In 1924, Dix unleashed a portfolio of rabid dogs struggling in their restraints; he called the series of drawings 'Der Krieg' ('The War'). At this time, carousing in her perfumed mud, Germany was daring and suicidal – pressing a razorblade to her jugular, tapping it with her bloody claws to see how far she could go before the pale skin broke.
I was stunned by the lines that knitted a blanket of lunar architecture: craters ripped out of a protesting earth by iron fists roaring out of the howitzers and tearing handfuls of dirt from the meek crust before throwing it into the black sky.
There was a small etching of a fearsome sculpture: a skull – all hair, skin and cartilage melted into the earth. Its expression had evaporated into the atmosphere. And yet it lived: sprouting from a cracked jaw, through a destroyed mouth, over teeth that slanted like a rotted fence, inside wriggling orbits, were worms. Vibrant and hungry, symbolic and hated – they hinted at the afterlife that the missing skeleton was experiencing, as they waited to be harvested from their field of bone.
Nothing was easy to look at. I feel awkward posting these two examples here. I think I was aware of the slender, yet powerful lines, the charismatic contrasts, the scumptural dark – before I noticed the corpses, the landscapes: the entire grisaille of hopelessness.
People are inclined to ignore misery. It is a human tendency. But at this eloquent exhibit, art stepped in…not to make the war to end all wars palatable, but to make sure it remained unforgettable.