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Lecture will examine works of controversial German painter Otto Dix

"The Felixmüller Family" by Otto Dix is the subject of James van Dyke's lecture "“Vulgar Materiality and Heteroglossic Detail in Otto Dix’s Painting." Photo courtesy of Christoph Brachmann.

James van Dyke, an art history professor at the University of Missouri, believes meaning can be derived from the closest of painting analyses — even down to the specific lumps of paint.

Van Dyke will give a lecture examining multiple meanings of an Otto Dix painting on Thursday, Nov. 7, at the Hanes Art Center. Christoph Brachmann, the Mary H. Cain distinguished professor of art history at UNC, is organizing the event.

Victoria Rovine, the acting chairperson of the art history department at UNC, said the department is thrilled to have van Dyke speak at the university.

“He is a renowned specialist in modern German art and politics — topics that are relevant to anyone with an interest in the way politics and art in any medium interact, which they do everywhere and always,” Rovine said. 

Otto Dix was a successful German painter from the 1920s known for his paintings of warfare, nudes, jazz and nightlife, van Dyke said. His work has been regarded as scandalous, shocking and controversial.

“He's an interesting character because he's from a time when people of art got more and more abstract, and he did the opposite,” Brachmann said.

Van Dyke said that he will be looking at a portrait Dix painted of his avant garde colleague and that colleague’s wife and child. The portrait is one of Dix’s early post-World War I works. 

“It’s a very untypical painting for the work of Otto Dix because it's quite abstract in comparison to what he normally paints,” Brachmann said.

Van Dyke will not only examine how Dix functioned as an artist in a moment of crisis, but also the individual details and lumps of paint on the work itself. 

"The reason I'm doing that is to ask what we might learn by looking really, really, really closely at a picture, and thinking about what the paint, and the way the paint is put on the canvas, might mean,” van Dyke said.

Because Dix’s works are so shocking, people are often only focus on his subject matter, van Dyke said. Instead, he is closely examining Dix’s specific painting style to explore the complexity of the painting’s meaning or message.

Van Dyke was disappointed when he first saw the painting because it is not what he expected from Dix. However, as he more closely looked at it and thought more about its details, it became richer and more interesting.

"Fundamentally, it's really about how we look at things and what is the relationship between form and content and materials,” van Dyke said.

The lecture will be intriguing to those interested in art, gender, race and ethnicity, van Dyke said. Attendees will gain insight into what can be learned from thoughtfully examining a picture and how artists respond to historical challenges.

Brachmann said the lecture will give attendees insight into what was happening in Germany after World War I, which was formative period for many important artists of modernity. 

"It's kind of a pressure cooker when society was changing radically, it was after a war that was lost – after a revolution,” van Dyke said. “Social roles were changing. New media were emerging. Everything was in flux and painters were trying to deal with that."


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