The German Painter (Otto Dix – 1891-1969) Questions His Time, His Country’s Historical Past and Humankind’s Future

The News channels extensively report about using child labor in the Indian sweat-shops…the children, some as young as ten, were worked sixteen-hour days, fed bowls of mosquito-covered rice, and forced to sleep on a roof and use overflowing latrines… But even American families will have to brace themselves for the inevitable cost-cutting measures. First the cookies and milk may have to go, then, as in India, the toilets and beds… In a nation that cannot bring itself to extend child health insurance to all children in need, child-made clothes make a fine fashion statement.
Barbara Ehrenreich, “This Land is Their Land”,
Metropolitan Books, 2008, p. 132 – 134

Otto Dix – “Working Class Boy” (1920)

Let’s try to comprehend what the intuition of the painter says. The boy’s eyes are blue. It is the question of the immanent spirituality. These eyes look at us like the sky looks at earth. They question life – they wait for life’s meaning. Children’s eyes are blue even when they are anatomically brown or grey or green. Child’s gaze is of an assessing innocence, of innocence which dares to assess but from the position of the innocence: of non-judgment. It is assessing without judging, and questioning without authority.

But the gaze of the child who is overburdened by life, who is robed of a childhood – cracks/splits because his wholeness is shattered – he was forced prematurely to assimilate too many responsibilities and worries. His gaze is shattered into two parts – his eyes are different from one another. The working boy’s right eye looks at the world – it sees and questions what it sees. But his left one is looking without seeing – it looks at the essence of the world, at the fact that world treats him as it does – without any recognition of value in his being. In other words, the boy’s left eye looks at the creator of the world where his destiny is as it is. It asks – how is it possible for the world to be to him as it is, why is the world created like this? This principle of the split gaze which is picturesquely analyzed by Picasso in many of his paintings is present here inside a realistic context.

The right brow is more horizontal (than the left one) corresponding to the direction of the right eye’s gaze – to the world. The left brow is more archial corresponding to “metaphysical” gaze of the left eye. The discrepancy between two gazes creates deep, tormenting wrinkles in between boy’s eyes. His cap is not positioned symmetrically – it’s displaced to the left: his being is located between his human identity (his hair trying to escape worker’s cap) and his work (cap’s visor). His mouth is as if pushed to the right, to the factual world – to the site of eating, away from authorities and creator of life. His nose is painted as deformed on the side of reality he encounters every day. He feels a basic, although unconscious, shame for existing, for being in misery, for being only a manual worker and for not having the right to a childhood, the right for being a child, for not being loved by the world. He simultaneously cannot agree with his destiny and is doomed to identify with the adults who hired him and see him as being nothing but wretch of the world.

The worker-boy’s hands cannot relax – even when he is not working his hands as if continue to hold something – a tool or an object. His right shoulder is lower because of physical strain (he is, obviously, right-handed and works more intensely with his right hand). And he is already permanently reclined to the front (his posture is deformed, bended forward) – he is always ready for physical tasks adult profit-makers have put in front of him. His ears are as if mobilized to hear something important from somewhere, are concentrated on listening. What can it be? May be a message of liberation from his destiny, a miracle, a radical transformation of the world that’ll let him free?

Otto Dix – “Match Vendor” (1927)

He stands at the base of a column which, as all other columns, represents the power of a great country/state/nation and glory of the rich people as a personification of humanity, the nobility of a civilization, and superiority of adulthood over childhood – all megalomaniacally petrified into the column as a majestic architectural motif, without compassion toward conditions of life for the majority of people. We see an ornamental flowery pattern at the base of the column – civilization has made stone to flower but neglect its children. In the gaze of the child we see not only the presence of physical exhaustion and a meek appeal but his fear of the parents if he will not return with money (exchanged for the matches, with match money). In a country (is it s pre-Nazi Germany or future U.S.?) where the might of power and privatized wealth is everything, life as such is like this match vendor to the giant column. Aren’t we witnessing today the same incompatibility – in US the difference between the two percents of the wealthy Americans and the Americans as such?