New Objectivity

Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it heart: bid farewell without end.

— Hermann Hesse, from Magister Ludi (1943)

The city was slick with the remnants of a long rain, but the late afternoon sun finally appeared to salvage the day.

Otto chose the Reichsadler, a small inn’s tavern located on the fringe of the Alstadt, because it was on a seedy street whose alleys he liked to walk. He enjoyed bearing witness to certain squalid brothels, always filled with certain misshapen women framed in the building’s windows, smoking cigarettes in their lingerie.

He entered the tavern feeling slightly anxious. The room smelled of sour hops and stale smoke, yet retained a trace of burnt coffee from the kitchen’s morning roast. It was the sort of air that would always ignite the steady hum of nostalgia within his restless soul.

Recent Umbrian memories clouded his mind as he took a seat in the first booth past the bar, whereupon he extracted a pipe from the side pocket of his coat. Savoring those images, he prepared a bowl of sweet smelling tobacco, slowly tamped it, and struck a match. He wanted to relax. While exhaling a sizeable cloud, he shut his eyes and tried to think of himself lying in a massive pile of soft pillows. He breathed deeply.

He was feeling anxious because he was meeting a new friend, without the definite prospect of another such meeting for a long time afterward. He was hoping they would not lose touch.

This friend—whose name was Hugo—appeared in the tavern’s doorway. Having that morning litigated a fairly trying case, he was bleary-eyed, but the prospect of a drink with a thriving acquaintance soothed his nerves. He was dressed as usual in a fine wool suit exquisitely tailored to the latest fashion, which clashed with Otto’s rough tweed jacket and soft-collared shirt.

Hugo approached the table unnoticed by the meditative Otto and broke the relative silence, “Hello my friend, you look well. Your flush cheeks betray what must certainly be a busy time for you.”

Otto broke his meditations and stood to greet Hugo. Irreverent voyeurs sitting in the dark corners of the room probably looked twice as these disparate gentlemen shared a friendly embrace. It was true that Otto’s complexion stemmed from a period of vigorous productivity, which started soon after the conclusion of the trial, where Hugo, pro bono, defended Otto’s rights to free expression against a claimant who was less than satisfied with her daughter’s painted likeness. Otto had arranged their meeting so he could propose a payment in kind, to be furnished as a portrait.

Otto slipped back into the bench, and replied by way of a smile, “Things are indeed going well. I’ve been hard at work preparing for an upcoming show in Manheim. Everyone seems to be quite excited about it.”

Hugo’s eyes took on a second life as he heard this news. Working in a world that overly valued rhetoric, he always appreciated Otto’s willingness to forego small talk and cut to substance. Before he could return the favor, the barman came over, so he ordered two cognacs and a pack of Chesterfields, then he shed his jacket, and with deftness of motion simultaneously unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and loosened his necktie.

“Well then,” Hugo began after having a seat, “I believe some congratulations are in order. We will raise a glass! When they get here of course…” Just then the waiter reappeared with Hugo’s order and laid the items on the table. The men cupped their thin-glassed snifters in an effort to warm the fine brandy contained therein. After an unspoken endpoint was reached, Otto and Hugo touched glasses, Prost!, and took their first sip.

Hugo continued, “It seems as though Herr Nierendorf’s promises have finally achieved fruition. Germany has finally learned about Otto Dix.”

Otto smiled humbly, he did not like to hear these kinds of grandiloquent statements. “Let’s just say that I am finally gaining some certainty with respect to my vocation. It’s been pretty difficult since the war, with all the moves and influences that have taken me away…”

Across the street in front of a barber shop stood a desolate man. He was leaning against the front window next to the shop’s spinning tricolored standard. The afternoon sun reflected off the thin gold rims of his spectacles, illuminating his smooth sullen face, and revealing an impeccable haircut.

The man stood and rubbed his wrist in a peculiar way, not due to pain, but as the habit of losing oneself in the vacillations of an active mind. He released a deep sigh, and continued to stare at some middle distance between the sides of the narrow street. Finally, with a slight jerk of the head, he came to some form of realization.

What does it matter that it’s broke? I am in a fine disposition to fix it. All I need to do is keep my chin up and display my finest face, after which my pale doubts will meld with obscurity, and I shall once more drink from the fountain of delight!

“Hugo, turn your head for just a second… Do you see that solitary figure across the street, just outside the barber?” Otto could not help interrupting the conversation, he was rapt at seeing this stranger’s manifestations of grief. “He looks miserable. Does he look familiar to you?”

With a quick veer of the head, Hugo spied the man with the gold spectacles. He was tall, spare, and had vaguely aquiline features. Something about his bearing indicated that he was occupying an unfamiliar place. And yet, he was unmistakably German. Hugo replied, “Doesn’t mean anything to me, although I agree that he looks bad, lost in a morbid dread…”

Just then the man from across the street started for the door of the tavern. Hugo was the first to remark, “I think he’s coming this way.”

The stranger took a few steps into the foyer and paused to survey the room. He bore a soft wool jacket over a linen shirt with twill slacks and sturdy boots, which gave him the look of a veteran wanderer. He entered the tavern and walked the length of the bar. He then removed his jacket and hung it on the second to last peg under the bar, loosely rolled up his sleeves, and ordered a glass of altbier.

Sitting as he was at the end of the bar, he ended up close to the conversing friends, but at a right angle to the plane of their table.

Otto continued to leer. The man absentmindedly thumbed the carpals of his left hand as it gripped his drink. With a lowered voice Otto remarked to Hugo, “Look here, his mood stems from his wrist.” Hugo snuck a sidelong glance and noticed the unmistakable outline of a missing watch on the man’s tan forearm. “Shall we inquire? I can see that you want to.” Otto thought for a second, “Why not? It couldn’t hurt to meet an interesting fellow after all…”

Hugo turned to the bar and waved an arm, palm up and out, to divert the man’s attention. Without turning around, the man replied, “Can I help you?”

Hugo chose to speak first, “Sorry to disturb you. My friend and I noticed your melancholy air. We we’re wondering if we could buy you a drink, as an arbitrary gesture of kindness, perhaps to console you from the loss of your watch.” The man of dignified sadness finally turned his head, sniffed once, and said, “Sure, why not, it couldn’t hurt to meet a couple of interesting fellows after all…”

He got up, slung his jacket over the bench seat, moved his drink to the booth table, and extended his hand to Hugo, and then Otto. He said, “My name is Hermann, nice to meet you both.” Hugo introduced himself as well as Otto, making sure to return the favor and omit the formal pronouns he would normally use.

Hermann sat next to Hugo, and settled into his newfound camaraderie. “The watch is not lost, it broke… Who could have guessed that a meaningless little object might arouse this particular brand of remorse? You see, it was given to me by my wife.”

A stillness fell upon the table, and each man took a sip of their drink. Finally Otto broke the silence by asking Hermann his wife’s name. “Her name is Ruth… She loves me very dearly, something exceptionally hard to walk away from, and yet, here I am. I sometimes think that I let my baser instincts get the best of me, like a mongrel beast.”

Words like these would always elicit a visceral reaction from Otto, and he found himself shifting in his seat, burrowing into the fleshy booth. He had also known the trials of an illicit situation warranted by boundless emotional burdens. His, however, had worked out for the best—his family was living proof—but he didn’t know if he could draw the same conclusion for this haphazard solitary man. He considered the neighborhood, and decided he wanted to know.

“And what exactly are these ‘baser instincts’ to which you refer?”

Hermann showed little discernible affect when asked such a direct question. After pausing to collect his thoughts he replied in a collected manner, perhaps with a slight flourish of calm emotion. “These so called ‘instincts’ may not be as obvious to me as they are to you, so I will try and be brief. Essentially, I fail to esteem my wife’s desires as much as my own. At this point I aspire to a tranquil life, but I cannot say the same for her. This is why I left Montagnola a month or so ago, and have been traveling through Germany to no easily discernible destination. I’ve been in Düsseldorf 8 days now, visiting a cousin that I’ve not seen for many years, and mostly without desire to leave…

“Except that today I woke up to find that my wristwatch had fallen off the nightstand, and now has a cracked face and broken mechanism. At first glance not worth repairing, but as I pass more and more time with a naked wrist, I realize how exposed I am. No longer able to cling to some petty reminder, I think I have come to the realization that I cannot hide. I need to admit to this woman that we are not meant for each other.”

Otto caught hold of the ensuing pause to interject, “Sorry if I came off as rude, I have a problem with hastiness. I only meant to inquire because I was once engaged to a woman who had to divorce her husband in order to marry me. I failed to open myself to the possibility that your situation could also be unique. Although in this case it seems as though you’re the one walking away. Hopefully you’re making the right decision.”

Hermann’s deeply tanned face maintained its serenity despite the rabid activity of his mind. “I’m sorry to have given you the impression that I’m annoyed. Rest assured that I appreciate your candor.” He paused to further collect himself. “I have come to accept my actions as they stand, but my thoughts this morning are admittedly shameful. Ruth deserves more than some haggard old wolf, skulking in the darkness… I think I must return home.”

With this proclamation Hermann drained his glass, and signaled for the barman to come over. His attention shifted to the package of cigarettes next to Hugo’s glass. “Do you mind? I’d really like to smoke right now, and I left the house without my pipe.” Hugo immediately grabbed the package of Chesterfields, broke it’s seal, and offered one to Hermann, saying, “It’s no bother, I must admit however, your story is compelling. I can see that you’ve thought hard on it, but still I’m curious, why do you choose to leave your wife Ruth? If she loves you so dearly, I’m sure she would accommodate herself to any lifestyle you strive for.”

Hermann lit his cigarette with a duly borrowed match, inhaled deeply, and savored his first drag. Finally he replied, “That’s a fair question, and not exactly easy to answer because you’re right, Ruth probably would accommodate herself to my whims…”

Hermann took another drag of his cigarette, and set it down on the ashtray’s rim. He slid off the bench, picked up his jacket, and shrugged it on. “I’m sorry gentleman, I think I must take off.” The barman appeared at his side, collected the empty glasses on the table, and asked if they needed another drink. Still facing Otto and Hugo, Hermann picked the cigarette back up and said, “But before I go, I will most certainly answer your question, whose answer comes in two parts.”

And turning to the barman he said, “Yes, I’d like to buy these two gentlemen another round. XO was it? Good. And I’ll settle for the beer as well, thank you.” He placed the cigarette on his lips, pulled out his wallet, and stuffed a few marks into the barman’s vest, whereupon the man returned to his position.

“First,” he continued, “I could never be comfortable making another dear soul contort itself on my behalf, it would not be fair to Ruth.

“And second…” He paused again, and it was clear that insights were emerging, as if to take hold of his slender neck. He inhaled another impressive lung full, and languidly exhaled its vapors.

“And secondly… she is not Ninon.”

As those last words settled, Hermann leaned in to snuff out the half-finished cigarette. He proffered another handshake to each of them and said, “Well Hugo, Otto, I must thank you for your benevolence. I feel resolute. I think I will go and make arrangements for a long trip.” Without giving the others time to respond he turned on his heel and left the tavern, bearing very little trace of his earlier malignant sadness.

Otto turned to Hugo, “Well, I guess he’s made up his mind. Didn’t even need much prodding either. Did he say XO? That’s good news.” The barman reappeared and set down two more snifters of cognac, the inn’s best. The men gripped their glasses and followed their tacit regimen of swirling.

Finally Otto raised his glass, “Here’s to the kindness of strangers.” Hugo settled into his seat, raised his own glass, and they each took a good sip.

Hugo could tell that Otto was lost in his thoughts, so he upped his inflection slightly, “This exhibition you’re preparing for, what’s its name?”

Otto snapped to attention while the cognac’s generous warmth spread down his gullet and into his chest. “I believe its name is to be Neue Sachlichkeit.”

Hugo, apparently mulling some thoughts of his own, turned his gaze toward the tavern’s door and absently replied, “No kidding?”

Otto Dix - Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons
Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons by Otto Dix