I’ve always been fascinated by paintings and music from Germany’s inter-war Weimar period. My friend Jennifer Alleyn has created a film on one of the most representative artists of that period, Otto Dix. (View the trailer here.) The film came out earlier this month in Montreal and Quebec City (see original post – in French – here.)
Jennifer is the daughter of painter Edmund Alleyn, the subject of her excellent film, L’Atelier de mon père. In her latest film, Jennifer uses a Dix painting rediscovered in Montreal as a starting point to explore the artist’s work. Inspired by Nietzsche and his experiences as a soldier in the First World War, as well as the economic and political crisis that would lead to the rise of Nazism, Dix did not shy away from depicting harsh realities such as war and prostitution. In Jennifer’s words:
“After L’Atelier de mon père, I was looking for a compelling topic. I really wondered what I could work on next. I wanted to feel the same certainty, the same strong connection with a subject. In the world of Otto Dix, I found difficult realities that are still all-too present, but I also found elements of mystery that completely fascinated me.
“It was during an art history class that I discovered Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons, 1925, which is part of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts collection. The painting had a strong effect on me. I found it at once unsettling and captivating. It was that paradoxical sense of horror and beauty, terror and attraction that made me want to explore further.
“I then found out that the MMFA was planning a major exhibition of Dix’s work. I figured if I got the go-ahead to film the paintings, the preparations for the exhibition and the hanging of his works, it would make for a dynamic and interesting introduction to a film. The project expanded beyond the exhibition when I decided to include episodes from Dix’s life, and visited the family home in Hemmenhoffen and a Berlin gallery.
“The story behind the Portrait of Lawyer Hugo Simons, 1925 was like something out of a novel: the Jewish lawyer’s trial and escape to Canada, his regular correspondence for more than 20 years with Otto Dix . . . I felt the work had a strong emotional charge. Like an archaeologist, I headed off in search of the fertile soil that gives works their aura of mystery, the layers of history and human life that are laid down over time.
“It was challenging to trace the path of a man who had killed (Dix was a soldier in 1914 and again in 1945). His work reflects traumatic experiences that were to haunt him for the rest of his life. I was attracted by his strength and courage. Branded a degenerate artist by the Nazis, he never stopped painting or portraying the horrors he’d witnessed. In my research, I came across this phrase by Nietzsche: “Art is given to us to prevent us dying of truth.” I knew that Dix was very fond of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and this phrase kept coming back to me, guiding my film. I believe it’s key to understanding Dix’s work.
“I think I needed to shift my focus, to experience a more raw and shocking type of painting.
ABOUT THE FILM: “It’s very powerful. Rhythmic. Unexpected. Profound. Moving. Surprising.” Nancy Huston