Transformations: The Lives and Art of A. Y. Jackson and Otto Dix

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Otto Dix, Bahndamm (Railway Embankment), 1911. © Estate of Otto Dix/SODRAC (2014)/Otto Dix Foundation, Vaduz, Principality of Liechtenstein

For those who have never set foot in the crimson mud of a battlefield, or inhaled the fumes of death hanging low in the trenches, understanding the brutality of war is as difficult to fathom as it is for the soldier to forget. Yet that didn’t stop war artists such as Canada’s A. Y. Jackson and Germany’s Otto Dix from compelling us to contemplate the scope of human suffering and loss during the First World War. It was a conflict that would help mould them into the artists featured in this summer’s Canadian War Museum exhibition, Transformations.

The exhibition straddles the political divide of the conflict, bridged by men who were both soldiers and artists. Transformations brings together 74 paintings—19 of which are from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada—in addition to drawings and a number of historical documents commemorating the Great War, its consequences, and the role played by Canada.

“Both men were artists throughout the conflict, and both became famous in their own countries and, to some degree, outside as well,” says Dr. Laura Brandon, Historian, Art and War at the Canadian War Museum. “They were the same age and they were both soldiers—and that is critical, because virtually none of the most recognizable names among official war artists were soldiers. It was very important to us, as a war museum, that we featured soldier-artists.”

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A.Y. Jackson, A Copse, Evening, 1918. © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario

Jackson enlisted as a soldier in 1915, and was injured in 1916. After he recovered, he became an official war artist as part of a program in Canada, Britain and Australia that used art and artists to further the war effort. In Germany, there was no official art program. Dix was simply a soldier-artist who drew and painted some 600 works, when and where he could, because he felt compelled to capture the realities of the battlefield. 

“Dix was a soldier the whole time,” says Brandon, “but soldiers got breaks behind the lines, and he had periods when he was on leave, when he was on training, when he was wounded. He was wounded twice over a four-year period, so there were moments for him to create art. He drew a lot on postcards that he sent back to his girlfriend. His paintings were produced when he had longer periods of time to create works in response to the battlefield as he saw it—unmediated by anything but the environment in which he existed as a soldier.” 

Jackson, on the other hand, operated within a larger, more cohesive system, along with other official war artists, and those involved in photography, film and propaganda. Despite the fact that Jackson had official status and Dix remained a soldier-artist, the two men—who never met—created some remarkably similar depictions of the Western Front. Jackson’s A Copse, Evening (1918) and Dix’s Gräben vor Reims II (1916) both portray ravaged landscapes, reminding viewers of the human and environmental costs of war.

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Otto Dix, Gräben vor Reims II (Trenches near Reims II), 1915. © Estate of Otto Dix/SODRAC (2014)/Private Collection

“They are very expressive landscapes, in which the landscape isn’t just destroyed—it’s churned-up, and full of hollows and hills, and swampy bits, and bashed-up and bruised bits,” says Brandon. “You see the dark-outlined humpy landscape in the work of both artists. I found that visually interesting, because it harkens back to the European environment from which they had come, and the European nature of the conflict in which they were participating.”

The show has been divided into five sections that illustrate the similarities between artists working on different sides of the Western Front, while also chronicling their evolution from before the war into their later years. The first section, Early Years (1882–1914), presents the artists’ pre-war work, setting the stage for the massive shift depicted in the second section, First World War (1914–1918).

The story gets even more interesting in the third part of the exhibition, After the War (1919–1932), when these artists went home to very different realities. Dix returned to a country that was now a humiliated former world power with a crippled economy; Jackson returned to a celebratory Canada that had come out victors in the greatest conflict the world had ever seen. Germany’s subsequent economic collapse, and the rise of Adolf Hitler, are the focus of the fourth section of the exhibition, which sees Dix and Jackson thrust in very different directions. 

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Otto Dix, Zerfallender Kampfgraben (Trench in Ruins), 1924. © Estate of Otto Dix/SODRAC (2014)/National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

Branded a “degenerate” artist by the Nazi regime, Dix spent 13 years in self-imposed exile in southwestern Germany. His work was included in the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, organized by the Nazis to single out art that they viewed as not only insulting to German pride, but also technically and morally inferior. It was a counterpoint to the Great German Art Exhibition, which featured works viewed by the Third Reich as Germany’s best art. The catalogues for both exhibitions have been lent to Transformations from the NGC Library and Archives.

Jackson, on the other hand, saw his fame grow as a member of the Group of Seven, and the Canadian Group of Painters. His career continued to flourish, and he would ultimately become one of Canada’s best-known artists.

The exhibition closes with a look at the final years of both artists. Drafted into the German army during the Second World War, Dix was captured by the French, and it wasn’t until the defeat of the Nazis that his reputation was finally restored. By contrast, A. Y. Jackson was able to remain a working artist, eventually settling in the Ottawa area, where he continued to paint the nearby wilderness.

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A.Y. Jackson, First Snow, Algoma, 1920. © McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario

“We couldn’t have told the story we want to tell, for either Otto Dix or A. Y. Jackson, without the support of the National Gallery’s collection,” says Brandon. “It’s fantastic to be able to create an exhibition that brings together two national collections. That’s a tremendous achievement.”


Transformations – A. Y. Jackson & Otto Dix is on view at the Canadian War Museum until September 21, 2014.

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