Transformations: A.Y. Jackson & Otto Dix

A.Y. Jackson, November (1922), oil on canvas, 81.4 x 101.9 cm. NGC. © Courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa, Ontario

Canadian artist A.Y. Jackson and German artist Otto Dix came from different countries, different backgrounds and had vastly different artistic styles. They also fought on opposing sides during the First World War. Yet the two tell an eerily similar war story through the shared language of art.

“It’s quite clear that there is some spirit that has united them,” says Dr. Laura Brandon, Acting Director of Research at the Canadian War Museum. “This is not about the war and what happened. It’s about the effect war has on people and on artists, and how it directs what they do with the rest of their lives.”

Transformations: A.Y. Jackson & Otto Dix features war-influenced paintings, drawings and prints by Dix and Jackson, on loan from public and private collections in Canada, the United States and Germany, including 17 works from the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

Otto Dix served the entire First World War in the German army, and deplored seeing his culture emotionally and physically annihilated by the forces of war. 

“After four years, wounded twice and sullen at the end of it with his well-known depictions of mutilated, severely wounded, handicapped soldiers, he came out quite bitter about the war and its destructive capacities,” says Brandon, curator of the exhibition.

A.Y. Jackson enlisted in 1915, but was injured in 1916. When he recovered, he would normally have been sent back to the Front, but was instead made an official war artist. “Jackson said that saved his life,” Brandon notes. “Otherwise, he would have been killed at Passchendaele. What he and Dix held in common was this ability to take advantage of a kind of symbolic language that becomes part of landscape style.”


Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917) [1924], etching and aquatint on laid paper, 35.5 x 47.7 cm. NGC. © Estate of Otto Dix / SODRAC (2013)

Melanie Kjorlien, Glenbow Vice President of Access, Collections and Exhibitions, says the exhibition is a unique approach to understanding the subject of war, and a new look at the role of war artists.

“At its most fundamental level, this is a story of how two individuals on opposite sides of a conflict were affected by their war experiences; and they happen to be artists,” she says. “They were experiencing the same thing as the other men in the trenches, who were also affected by the things they saw and the conditions they endured.”

Their art continued to reflect that war experience for the rest of their lives.

“A significant number of Dix’s landscapes incorporate moments of resistance,” Brandon says. “So, if he’s painting a happy scene of cornfields and bucolic peasants, he’ll introduce a dead branch on a tree, a dead corner of a vineyard; a farmer reaping corn will be juxtaposed with a funeral procession going through the corn.”

Jackson called the First World War “the dividing line” in his life and his work.

“Jackson attributed pretty well everything that happened to him after the war to that conflict,” she says. “By advocating his own battered landscape—burnt over, snowed on, iced over—Jackson’s landscapes are speaking to the significance of the place where you live as being important.” 

She says, above all, both artists used their respective war experiences to express something about the human condition and what humanity should aspire to.

“They both cared about their country, they cared about the land in which they lived, they cared about the people with whom they lived and, to the best of their abilities, they expressed the importance of that through what they did. They used the language of art to both celebrate what is good, and describe what is not good.”

Transformations: A.Y. Jackson & Otto Dix is on view at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary until 5 January 2014. The exhibition will also be presented at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa from 8 April to 21 September 2014.

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