Saturday, April 23, 2011

Teratophilia and the Paintings of Otto Dix

(Painting of World War I by Otto Dix)

I wanted to do this unit on fear in the early 20th century.
Recently I’d taken over after a Taiwanese teacher, a thirty-year vet, suffered something of a breakdown in class. She started throwing books, cursing students, stormed out of the building, freaked everybody out. Said she couldn’t take it anymore. The whining. The apathy. The constant beatings her heart took as she tried to discipline and educate the unwilling youth of the world. So I stepped in just in time for the annual World War I lectures, with nothing but a day to prepare.
(Pencil scetch of teacher Brian Hartenstein by student)

I’m something of a teratophiliac. Wounds and scars turn me on. I want my world absurd and obdurate, topsy-turvy and upside-down. I want to grimace and panic, stare aghast into deformity and depravity, to clutch my heart strings at the sublime, to move and be moved. So I started thinking about ways to kick this class in the stomach, and hopefully do the same to myself.
(Colored pencil drawing of face-kite after a blustery day by Xian, aged 7)

I gave them pictures of great men.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s withered left arm, born breech, he was often photographed clutching the hilt of a sword so as not to appear a freak. I showed them photographs of Vladimir Lenin, clean shaven in a woman’s wig, trying to pass incognito so as not to be killed on his return to Russia. I explained how Woodrow Wilson was a man so brilliant he became the first president to throw out a baseball pitch at the World Series, but that he carried secrets, like his father was a slave owner, and that he suffered a stroke after congress wouldn’t join his League of Nations and became paralyzed until his death.
I wanted students to see pain, to know we all suffer in silence.
(Marker portrait of her mother, Kinu, aged 3)

I showed them weapons.
Machine guns and hand grenades, tanks and armadas. The discovery of helium leading to Zeppelins dropping bombs and the affects of nerve gas. I showed them clips of war wounds, amputations, and men with faces blown off. Full documentaries of Shell Shock, twittering and stuttering men, arms and legs and hands bouncing and shaking as if doing the jitterbug or lindy. The wide eye’d stares of war survivors, trembling in garden chairs, leaping under beds at the mere mention of bombs, running for cover when a white-coated doctor showed them the brim of a soldier’s cap.
(Marker picture of love by Rebekah, aged 5)

And I showed them the paintings of Otto Dix.
The germen soldier who studied in Dresden and later recounted with such graphic horror the terrors of trench warfare: a mutilated horse, a disemboweled man in bed, the skeleton of a suicidal soldier, a slouched man eating from a tin can next to piles of the dead. Unflinching. Unforgiving. Then I had them draw their nightmares. These are 9th graders mind you, the ones studying for the enormous National Exam, the one that makes or breaks their high school entrance, the exam that determines their college majors and thus the job field they are allowed to enter.
I spoke in whispers, that’s all you need really, when you’re dealing with the youth of the world, who will later become the ones entrusted to save us all.

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