According to Jim, an attendant at the the National Gallery of Victoria, feelings ran high last Anzac Day against the exhibition of 51 drawings and etchings by Otto Dix, a German artist/soldier.
'In Adelaide,' he says, 'there were even some attempts to damage the prints.'
This is an exhibition that indeed provokes strong reactions from observers with its often grotesque and always confronting depictions of the realities of war on the Western Front during WWI. Dix said that 'there was a dimension of reality that had not been dealt with in art: the dimension of ugliness'.
In this exhibition there is an excess of ugliness. Mealtime in the Trenches depicts a soldier gulping down a hasty meal apparently indifferent to the human skeleton trapped in the frozen landscape beside him.
Equally harrowing are images of corpses ripped apart by bullets and bombs, dying soldiers and the victims of poison gas (ironically entitled The Sleepers of Fort Vaux). No wonder the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Art describes Dix's cycle of prints as 'perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art'.
Born in 1891 Dix the artist volunteered as a machine-gunner, fought at the Somme in 1915 and was wounded a number of times, once almost fatally. My uncle was wounded at the Somme at the age of 17 (almost fatally too) and suffered for the rest of his life the effects of poison gas and a wound that fascinated us as children. We constantly pestered him to hold up his arm so we could see the sky though the hole in his wrist. I wondered if Dix had been the machine-gunner who had wounded my uncle and changed his life forever.
Jim, who paces this exhibition floor-space with a vigilance approaching maternal anxiety, admits that one drawing in particular is 'most disturbing'. This is plate 51, Soldier Raping a Nun, a horrific image which was suppressed when this portfolio of images was first published in 1924. Dix's publisher believed (understandably) that the image would be seen as a 'slap in the face for all those who celebrate our "heroes" [and] ... for all those who have a bourgeois conception of a front-line soldier'.
Nations need to believe in the nobility of their soldiers. Anything less would be unbearable and unacceptable to their myth-making. As a nation we cope with war by concentrating on stories of bravery not its ghastly acts. Valour informs a nation's myth-making, leaving no room for the unspeakable. Such myth-construction is a necessary bulwark against the reality of acts too dreadful to face.
The paradox infusing this exhibition is that Dix never considered himself a pacifist nor was he interested in politics. He never intended his work to be taken as anti-war propaganda. He was horrified by war yet fascinated by his experiences. 'I was not seeking to depict ugliness,' he said. 'Everything I saw was beautiful.'
But by allowing an aesthetic to overlay moral questions around war are we merely glamorising and further mythologising its horrors?
Jim was a soldier for five years and only missed out on being sent to Vietnam on the accession of the Whitlam government. He's recently forbidden his son to join the army. 'I've seen what happens,' he says,' when some people pick up guns — they go crazy.' He's Croatian in origin and understands first-hand what happens when you expose deep differences between cultures and religions.
It's difficult to know whether to feel pride or shame for our participation in past wars. Does our myth-making provide a convenient excuse merely to repeat the same conflicts endlessly?
Of the 51 images in Dix's exhibition only one, Bomb Crater with Flowers (pictured), offers any sense of hope. Battlefields do get covered over and horrors do fade. But perhaps it's the mythology that grows out of war that we're still not quite sure how to interpret.
War: The Prints of Otto Dix is at the National Gallery of Victoria until 10 August, then will head to the Art Gallery of NSW from 22 August until 26 October. Otto Dix's Der Krieg Cycle of prints is owned by the National Gallery in Canberra.
The Art of War: National Gallery
John Bartlett's features and short stories have been published widely in magazines and newspapers and his debut novel Towards a Distant Sea was released in 2005. He teaches Professional Writing at Deakin University.