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Masters on War: Sargent vs. Dix

If you know a little about the history of art, you have probably heard of Sargent. He's known for his portraits of society ladies, done in an impressionist, glamorous flurry of virtuoso brushwork that defines high style for modern realist painters. I've been thinking about Sargent because I'm currently reading a book called Alla Prima by Richard Schmid, a direct painting guru who worships at the altar of Sargentism. I'm reading it because I blunder through painting without worrying too much about color theory or painting or drawing from life--and I feel like it's worth it to at least understand what I'm missing. While the author has many worthwhile bits of advice, his aesthetic opinions on modern art turn me off. For Schmid, Sargent exemplifies the very purpose of art--to depict light on form in such a way that you make pretty paintings out of pretty people and things. Schmid feels that art should have nothing to do with politics or messages. This severely limits the potential of art to effect change and portray the truth of nature and the human condition. I immediately thought of Sargent's painting from WW1 called Gassed:

Sargent's large painting shows a weary group of soldiers, blinded by gas, stumbling unseen past their blinded comrades, collapsed in heaps behind the front line. The artist delivers an epic painting with a technically brilliant composition full of elegant contrasts in value, color, and line. It's in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London and it's easy to understand why--because it gives us a fantasy of war in which suffering becomes an artistic effect, not something felt. Gassed effectively demonstrates what's wrong with Sargentism and how it essentially mirrors the aesthetics of abstract expressionism that modern realist painters like Schmid so detest. For both, the purpose of art is to draw attention to the technique--or lack thereof. The message is unimportant. Emotions matter little--what counts is painterly qualities and principles of design. You don't spend any time thinking about how horrible war is because you're too busy thinking how realistic it looks, how much "like a photo" it appears--or if you're a little bit more sophisticated, how delicately Sargent painted his edges, how perfectly he portrayed the light falling on the tumbled forms of the soldiers in the foreground. But art is more than technique--it's also about saying something meaningful.

Enter Otto Dix.

There's no sentimentalizing or candy-coating here. Dix lets us have it. This is someone who's lived through it. His trauma invests every scratch of the stylus. These men have died from gas, transformed into ghastly parodies of the human form, while blasé field medics watch in callous apathy. Dix confronts us with the essential nature of war: hideous violence, horrific waste of life, and the steady erosion of human decency and empathy. It's hard to tell what's going on spatially here--perspective has been thrown out the window--and rightly so, because a more "realistic" view would have the medics standing over the corpses, which would be obscured from clear view. Dix, a veteran of the horrors of trench warfare, will have none of this. He wants us to see the shattered, bloated corpses, front and center. No delicate light modeling here or lovingly foreshortened poses. Just a window seat view into hell itself.

Sargent may see light and color and edges, but he doesn't see a damn thing about war. Art can be so much more than pretty pictures of pretty things. It can be about ugly things too--things that demand we act to stop them. As we get deeper and deeper into the 21st century with its mounting and pressing problems, I think the greatest art will force us into a confrontation with what we've done to the world--and give us the courage to fight for the future, not the past.


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