Nelly als Flora signed with monogram and dated 1940 (lower right); inscribed Für Ursus Zum Geburtstag 1940 (verso) tempera and oil on panel 83 x 65 cm. (32 5/8 x 25 5/8 in.)
Provenance: Private Collection, Canada.
Exhibition: St Paul de Vence, Fondation Maeght, Otto Dix: Metropolis, 2 July - 18 October 1998.
Literature: Fritz Löffler, Otto Dix 1891-1969, Das Oeuvre Der Gemälde, 1981, No. 1940/02, (illustrated in black and white).
Before the age of eighteen, Otto Dix had received no formal training in drawing or painting. He had acquired only a basic knowledge of decorative painting in Gera, a provincial town in the eastern region of Thuringen, close to his place of birth. Here, he was able to practice his craft on the ornamental facades of some residential buildings. His distinct disposition and keen interest in the arts led him to enrol, in the autumn of 1909, in Dresdens prestigious School of Arts and Crafts. For the next five years, Dix completed his formal training with regular visits to the citys Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, studying old masters works from the early German, Dutch and Flemish schools. He was also interested in Florentine painting of the Quattrocento. These combined studies led Otto Dix to produce a series of self-portraits in 1912-13, all strongly indebted to the pictorial forms and techniques of the early masters.(1) This particular style of painting inscribed itself within the aesthetic tendencies of contemporary German art, which, at the time, opted for a highly detailed and cooled form of realism. It emerged from a strong sense of observation together with a high quality of execution and finish particularly in the layered varnishes -. This so-called Sachsisches Florentinertum - Saxon Florentinism - movement was particularly popular in Dresden - where Dix was then working. The movement contributed to support the national artistic tradition while, at the same time, offered the market a German counterpart to the spread of French Impressionism in the country.
In the autumn of 1912, Dix attended an exhibition of works by Vincent Van Gogh, temporarily on display at the Ernst Arnold Gallery of modern art in Dresden. The viewing encouraged Dix to recognise the values of modern art and allowed the artist to turn himself to more contemporary forms of painting. Indeed, for the following nine years, Dix will lead his art within the more avant-garde guidelines of Fauve, Dada and Expressionist trends and theories. However, while becoming one of the founding members of the Dresdner Sezession(1919), Dix continued to develop his interest in early master painting, with particular attention to the meticulous sense for detail and realism. In fact, Dixs first realist paintings date from this period. However, it was only in 1923 that his painting technique closely emulated the traditional methods formulated by the old masters. From 1923 to 1943, Dix painted by carefully layering coloured glazes, applied thinly over a prepared surface. The constraints of this method are particularly obvious as an additional layer of glaze may only be added once the surface has completely dried; because of this, the artist must bear in mind from the very beginning the final image of his mental vision. The method does not allow for any spontaneous change in the process of composition.
With the rise to power of Hitlers National Socialist Party, in the January elections of 1933, Dix began to find work increasingly difficult. His important successes as a critic of bourgeois society and morals during the 1920s were succeeded, under the new regime, by gradual personal and professional exclusions; in 1933, he was dismissed from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy; from the following year, his work was qualified as degenerate art by the German authorities and forbidden from public viewings. By 1936, the pressure was no longer sustainable. With his wife Martha and their three children - Nelly (1923), Ursus (1927) and Jan (1928) - Dix moved into a large and newly built house, set in the forest mountains near the town of Hemmenhofen, on Lake Constance, in the southern region of Baden-Wurttemberg. With the escalading politicisation of the German cultural scene, Dix opted to go into inner emigration, distancing himself from the present climate by reverting to less engaged fields of the artistic repertoire: the landscape and biblical scenes.
It is in this context and, indeed, out of this context, that, in 1940, this portrait of his only daughter Nelly was painted. On canvas, Dix has performed a chronological and thematic transgression of his daughters physiognomy. Indeed, a young adult of seventeen in real life, Dix, here, has turned back in time to portray a very young Nelly as Flora, the goddess of eternal youth and beauty. This identification of his daughter with Flora certainly echoes the much earlier portrait of Clara Böcklin, the only child of the great Romantic painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) as the muse of Anacreon, the Greek Lyrical poet of love and wine.(2) While Böcklin arranged a disguise best suited for the more masculine features of Clara, Dix chose a more effeminate personalisation for the portrait of his own daughter. Further to this, Dixs portrait is also a tribute to the earlier master of German Romanticism, Phillip Otto Runge (1777-1810). It is indeed from the stylistic idiosyncrasies of Runges art that Dix sorts out the purely Romantic elements of German painting in order to create a neo-realism of his own conception. Dixs visual reference to the German authors of Romantic painting confirms his adherence to the lingua franca of their shared heritage. The result is a mesmerising portrait of modern ingenuity, consciously, yet with great subtlety, quoting the important heroes of the German Romantic tradition, equally indebted to the Early Renaissance masters. Dix even hallmarks this shared heritage by endorsing a monogrammed signature, lower right, where the initials O and D intertwine in a manner reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer or Hans Holbeins marks of authorship.
In the present portrait, the figure of Nelly addresses her father and the viewer in a frontal position, rendered somewhat more effective by the raised arm on the right which serves to dissolves the border between the sitter and the viewers spaces. Nothing comes in between, except, perhaps, the lowered hand on the left, delicately fingering the stem of a white flower plucked from the adjacent shrub. The gesture is a familiar one, borrowed directly from the Renaissance portraits of Hans Baldung Grien or Albrecht Dürer. Here, however, Dix has stripped the sitter of any bejewelled ornament in order to adorn Nelly with floral foliage. The flowers crown the girl with an aura of perpetual burgeoning, offering perhaps a spark of re-naissance hopes in the bleakness of wartime Germany. Dix held strong convictions on the frailty and preciousness of life. The absurdity of war is only accepted by projecting upon the period a vision of optimism of the purest sort. Dixs strong belief in Nietzsches God is dead concept had made him turn reverently to the sacredness of life itself. Just as he had portrayed his son Ursus as a newborn baby coming into the world,(3) Dix now celebrates his daughters coming into adulthood as the arrival of Spring during one of the harshest political winters. The firm, direct and even robust appearance of the young girl shifts our views of contemporary politics to more optimistic visions of an approaching period of health, wealth and abundance. The shimmering moiré of Nellys best dress contributes to offer an image of hope for the oncoming-arrival of peaceful times. Dixs pre-disposition for an optimistic outcome to wartime Germany is translated into an allegorical portrait of his own child - perhaps a form of preservation, for the father and the artist he was.
1 The Selbstbildnis mit Nelke of 1912 is perhaps the best example from this period. Loffler no.1912.3 2 The Muse of Anacreon of 1873, Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, inv. 873/13; see also Bocklins portrait of Flora (or Young girl with a crown of flowers) of 1875, Museum der BildendenKunste, Leipzig, inv.1133 3 See Neugeborenes Kind auf Handen (Ursus), painted in 1927, Loffler no.1927.5