One Piece at a Time

Otto Dix’s “Sailor and Prostitute”

A German Expressionist renders a sordid scene in rough, bold ink.

By - Jan 10th, 2013 09:39 am

Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969) Sailor and Prostitute, 1923 Color lithograph image: 19 1/16 x 14 1/2 in. (48.42 x 36.83 cm) sheet: 23 1/2 x 18 5/16 in. (59.69 x 46.51 cm) mat: 36 x 28 in. (91.44 x 71.12 cm) Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection M2000.265 Photo credit Michael Tropea © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Not Currently on View

Go to the Milwaukee Art Museum, pick a work, stand before it for a long time. Tell us what you see. TCD’s One Piece at a Time series began with that thought in the summer of 2010. TCD senior editor Tom Strini handled the One-Piece duties then and in 2011. In the winter and spring 2012, Strini worked with a class of graduate students in art at UWM. They did the One Piece drill, wrote draft essays, then survived a writer’s boot camp with Strini. We’re publishing the results, one piece at a time.

A gritty print by Otto Dix confronts many of the visitors that pass through the MAM’s Marcia and Granvil Specks gallery, home to many German Expressionist works on paper.

Sailor and Prostitute, the print in question firsts attracts attention with its placement, by the entryway, and then the subject — who can deny this working woman? At no more than 15×20 inches of image, it is given luxurious berth in the 6 to 8 inch matting and is wrapped up in an unassuming aluminum frame. The image itself is printed on a light cream-colored laid paper with a texture so strongly pronounced that three layers of ink have left some voids that reveal bare paper.

Dix’ use of this triad of ink is no mistake. In an almost commercial success he achieves rich shadows

without ever having to print a black key image. Yet the base layer of peach, coupled with the sienna tinged red and inky navy blue present the raw nature of the scene quite clearly.


Otto Dix, “Self-Portrait 1912.” Oil and tempera on 49.5 x 73.6 cm panel. Detroit Institute of Art; image from WikiPaintings Visual Art Encyclopedia.

The prostitute lies diagonally across the center of the frame in a stereotypically coy pose. Reclined, one arm bends behind her head and hair – cemented red mass that it is — and the other bends across her breast. Her eyes, one of the few instances that paper color is visible within the image area, jump straight to that of her company. The sailor looms over the figure of the woman like a wave. It is here that we see Dix’ use of color so perfectly; the peach reacts to each of the colors separately, and we see the force of all the colors printed simultaneously.

What is special about this piece is its specific medium. In no other process would the misaligned layers of the image read as supporting the narrative and imagery. In no other process could splatters from tusche read as contamination drifting from the burly sailorr to the stocking-clad prostitute. Though shocking in its nature, Sailor and Prostitute is also masterful printmaking and rewards viewers for time spent with it.

Categories: Art, Arts & Culture

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