Etchings by German Expressionist Otto Dix have the dark, condensed intensity of bittersweet chocolate. Eschewing the macho spontaneity of early Expressionism in favor of a clinically precise style, Dix's renderings of the shabby life of the proletariat are nasty little hornets nests of organization.
One of the leaders of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement which sought to rejuvenate the threadbare state of social realist painting via meticulous attention to detail and a ruthless allegiance to reality, Dix is known for his brutal depictions of the horrors of war. Often compared to Goya, Dix did get off a few images that matched the Sam Peckinpah of Spain for gruesomeness. Dating from 1921-24, the work on view here is from Dix's "Der Krieg" (War), a series of etchings that plays on our romantic notions of life during wartime, when the awareness of an encroaching enemy invests the pleasures of everyday life with an element of delirium.
Also on view is work by Dix's contemporary, Max Beckmann. A somewhat academic painter early in his career, Beckmann suffered a nervous breakdown during the World War I, after which his work underwent an abrupt change.
Rejecting decorative dazzle in favor of art with a righteous message, Beckmann is now hailed by German critics for his scrupulously authentic depiction of German culture. While sharing many of the concerns that drove Dix, Beckmann's visual sensibility was much more sophisticated, and flourishes of Cubism and Fauvism lend his work a snappy stylishness that's lacking in Dix's vignettes.
Included here are Beckmann's revealing portraits of German burghers along with images of a town fair and the exotic world of German cabaret. In "Niggertanz" we see a group of black musicians performing for a white audience; one performer dances the hootchy-cootchy, a few play musical instruments, and one clutches a spear. That spear is the zinger that kicks the mind into motion. (Fiorella Urbinati Gallery, 8818 Melrose Ave., to Dec. 7.)