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100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith

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Otto Dix: The Businessman Max Roesberg 1922

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Max Roesberg, the owner of an engineering firm in Dresden, stands behind his desk returning the gaze of the viewer from the corners of his eyes. His face juts forward from his ramrod-straight neck which looks as if it might swivel within his wing collar like a periscope. He holds a mail order catalog of machine tool parts in an oddly stiff hand which adds to the feeling that we are beholding some sort of semi-automaton – both arms are curiously rigid – his head is a little too large for his body. His slant-eyed gaze, while not overtly malevolent does engender a feeling of some unease. One senses a ruthless personality capable of considerable cunning tempered only by the necessity to moderate these instincts for the sake of best business practice. Would you buy a used machine tool from this man?

However his close-cropped hair, trimmed moustache, neat suit and sober tie all speak of the quiet, understated efficiency of the successful businessman as does the prominence given to the wall clock, calendar and telephone. It was this success that gave Roesberg the means to collect art and, despite his straight-laced appearance, commission a portrait from an avant-garde artist like Dix.

World War I had changed artists like Otto Dix. It had exposed him and his generation to levels of mechanised horror and cruelty which few of us can imagine and as a result his art changed. After the Great War, Dix and fellow artists such as George Grosz and Max Beckmann sought to distance themselves from what they considered the irrationality of the Expressionists who had led the German avant-garde before the war. Deriding any show of patriotism, rejecting the past and developing a cool, unsentimental style, they sought to portray a distinctive version of objective reality infused with a merciless satirical commentary on the corruption (both financial and social) and political factionalism that paralysed post-war German society. In 1925 an exhibition of work by Dix, Grosz and 30 other artists entitled Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) was organised in Mannheim, providing a name for this group of disparate artists.

Dix’s portraits are never flattering and this picture is no exception – although not as chillingly forensic as many of his other portrayals of lawyers, prostitutes, theatrical personalities and writers, we are nevertheless aware that we are in the company of a man (notwithstanding his activities as a collector of the output of several young Dresden artists, including a number by Dix) whose first allegiance is to his business.

Contemporary Works

1922 Max Ernst: Rendez-vous of Friends, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

1922 Chaim Soutine: View of Céret, Baltimore Museum of Art

1923 Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), Philadelphia Museum of Art


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