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Stormtroops advancing under a gas attack

Otto Dix First World War etchings

The de la Warr Pavilion has consistently put on some interesting exhibitions. Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went along  recently to see the main exhibition, I Cheer a Dead Man’s Sweetheart, and came across the rather shocking – but relevant and rewarding – Otto Dix Der Krieg exhibition in commemoration of the First World War.

Transporting the Wounded in Houthulst Forest 1924

Transporting the Wounded in Houthulst Forest 1924

It is intriguing that it is art showing the German experience. Looking at the images, it cannot but occur to one, what is the difference? War is war, soldiers are people, they get wounded and they die.  It shows graphically man’s inhumanity to man whatever nationality you are.

Dix does not spare the viewer, or himself. His black and white etchings are drawn from experience. He volunteered and fought in the First World War as a machine gunner; he saw action at the Somme and was wounded several times. During his time in the trenches he not only kept a diary but also recorded images in his sketch book.

Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares

Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares

The prints are a tribute to  Goya’s own war series The Disasters of War created in response to the bloody conflict Napoleonic and the Spanish War of Independence. Dix, profoundly affected by the war, taunted by nightmares of the horrendous things he had witnessed emerged as etching some years after the war.  All together there were 51 prints; 19 of them have been loaned by the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings.

Corpse of a horse

Corpse of a horse

lt is hard looking at some of the prints. Dix has not shied away from the reality. They are unflinchingly honest as he is trying to make some sort of sense  and show the reality of the hellishness of it all. Men die in war: a soldier lies dead, a skeleton, with his helmet still in place; men remain where they fell; a line of gassed men lie helpless; mortar shell holes like inverted mole hills; a dead horse lies spikily like an Elisabeth Frink sculpture.

Company resting

Company resting

If there is one favourite, or rather one that made an impression, it is of men in the trenches, sleeping. But one man is beyond sleep; he sits slumped, staring into nowhere, shell shocked, or simply beyond exhaustion.  I have seen photographic images of an American soldier in the Vietnam War whose face is vacant, staring into the middle distance, but I have not seen drawings so vividly portraying these events – although I am sure they exist.  And well done de la Warr for exhibiting these German war images.

The de la Warr has not shirked from putting on challenging exhibitions – from John Cage, Joseph Beuys or Richard Wilson – which might have left some people totally confused, uncomprehending or even indignant.  But I have found the invigilators there willing to help explain the exhibits to visitors and make the experience more understandable and enjoyable.  Even if it is a step too far for some visitors it is more than welcome that these exhibitions are there, rather than not. And it is good to be challenged from time to time.

The exhibition continues until 27 July, Monday-Sunday 10am-6pm at de la Warr Pavilion, Marina, Bexhill, TN40 1DP

Posted 13:11 Wednesday, Jun 11, 2014 In: Visual Arts

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