Die Elektrische was executed in 1919, the year in which Otto Dix became a founding member of the Dresden 'Secession Group 1919'. This idiosyncratic and pivotal work draws heavily on Dadaism with its collaged elements. The combination of painterly texture and the magpie-like inclusion of found objects epitomises one of the defining dialogues of modernism as the artist moved increasingly towards such Dadaist tactics for a short while, particularily during the following year when he became friends with George Grosz. This bold new style found many supporters, including the renowned art dealer, Johanna Ey, the first owner of the present work. Ey's longstanding patronage of the avant-garde helped to gain them international recognition, and not before long Dix's extraordinary experiments caught the attention of other Dada artists such as Kurt Schwitters, whose own distinctive style would soon come to define the movement (fig. 2).
Keith Hartley and Sarah O'Brien Twohig write of Dix and his relationship to Dada: '[Dix] first came into contact with Dadaist ideas in May 1919 when he met the pianist Erwin Schulhoff and the poet Theodor Däubler. They both owned copies of Hülsenbeck's 1918 manifesto which defined Dada as "symbolising the most primitive relation to the reality of the environment; with Dadaism a new reality comes into its own. Life appears as a simultaneous muddle of noises, colours and spiritual rhythms which are taken unmodified into Dadaist art with all the sensational screams and fevers of its reckless everyday psyche and with all its brutal reality". This could only be communicated by introducing collage...' (K. Hartley & S. O'Brien Twohig, Otto Dix (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1992, p. 98).
Whole words and fragments of words pepper the surface of the present work and this rich visual-verbal interplay imbues Die Elektrische with tremendous dynamism. The artist presents all the colour of modern life in the metropolis, yet his humorous treatment of the subject here and its playfully naïve execution serve to undermine this very sophistication: while the red zigzag of lightning and the arrow at the top of the composition speak of the dynamism of the electric age, the tram itself is depicted with its unaligned wheels and its block-like carriage almost as if it were a child's tinplate toy. The faces of the tram's passengers in their genteel hats and coats have a strongly comic-book flavour in their exaggerated physiognomies while the driver is dressed all in black with a maniacal, cut-out face of a pumpkin man. There is a direct relationship between sentiments expressed in the present work and one of Dix's most famous images, Prager Strasse (fig. 3). In both paintings the combination of an examination of bourgeois metropolitan life and the malign fate that seems to be awaiting its embodiments is perhaps an echo of Dix's first-hand experience of the First World War which would have a profound and lasting effect on his art.
Despite the recent hiatus of world history, Die Elektrische is essentially a highly idiosyncratic, humorous work that embodies Dix's unique world view. The composition's accretion of found objects and collaged elements is emblematic of his playful and inventive artistic personality and his adoption of a Dada idiom. Dadaism was a brief but fertile interlude in his œuvre, and demonstrated his willingness to experiment with new means of expression. These works would greatly impact other burgeoning avant-garde movements, not only in Germany exemplified by Schwitters and Hannah Höch (fig. 5), but also the Dada/Surrealist group working in France. This included Max Ernst whose subsequent work demonstrates how forward-thinking Dix's art had been at the turn of the decade (fig. 4). During this experimentation with new ways of expressing the world, Dix never loses his acuity of vision, nor does he deviate from his essential purpose as an artist: that of conveying to the viewer an extraordinarily insightful and resonant commentary on modern life.
Fig. 1, Otto Dix in front of a moving picture at the Erste Internationale Dada-Messe, Otto Burchard Galerie, Berlin, 1920
Fig. 2, Kurt Schwitters, Merzbild 10 A/L Merzbild L 4 (Konstruktion für edle Frauen), 1919, assemblage on board, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Fig. 3, Otto Dix, Prager Strasse, 1920, oil and collage on canvas, Galerie der Stadt, Stuttgart
Fig. 4, Max Ernst, Deux enfants sont ménaces par un rossignol, 1924, oil and assemblage on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fig. 5, Hannah Höch, Mechanischer Garten, 1920, gouache, watercolour and pen and ink on paper, Private Collection
Oil and assemblage on panel
Stuttgart, Galerie der Stadt Stuttgart,
Otto Dix zum 80. Geburtstag: Gemälde, Aquarelle, Gouachen, Zeichnungen und Radierfolge 'Der Krieg', 1971, no. 28, illustrated in the catalogue
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Otto Dix: Peintures, aquarelles, gouaches, dessins et gravures du cycle de "La guerre", 1972, no. 20, illustrated in the catalogue (titled Le tram)
Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Neue Nationalgalerie, Sammlung Neue Nationalgalerie: Die aufregende Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, 2007-08
46 by 37cm. 18 1/8 by 14 5/8 in.
Aspetti della Nuova Oggettività - Aspekte der Neuen Sachlichkeit (exhibition catalogue), Galleria del Levante, Milan, 1968, no. 6, illustrated in the catalogue (titled Strasse)
Fritz Löffler, Otto Dix 1891-1969, Œuvre der Gemälde, Recklinghausen, 1981, no. 1919/16, illustrated
Johanna Ey, Düsseldorf
Dr. Hans Koch, Düsseldorf (probably acquired from the above)
Acquired by the family of the present owners