Dix, Otto (1891–1969)
DIX, OTTO (1891–1969)BIBLIOGRAPHY
Like many among the avant-garde, the young German painter Otto Dix greeted the onset of war in August 1914 with a sense of excitement, and he joined the army not as a conscript but as a volunteer. He was in favor of what he viewed as a just and purifying struggle that offered the prospect of Nietzschean redemption. From its early enthusiasms to cruel disenchantments, he plunged into the war and followed it until the end.
At the front, Dix was fascinated. He spun out his real-world research and attempted to overcome the contradiction between the aesthetics and destructiveness of modern warfare. But disenchantment and Zerrissenheit (best translated as "torn-to-pieces-hood") gradually shaped the warp and woof of his representations. His drawings show the trenches, excavations left by shrapnel shells, ruins, broken staircases that lead nowhere. Topless trees and their stump branches were reminders of headless and mutilated soldiers, vanished at the desolate front.
Although not a committed dadaist, Dix agreed to participate in the movement's 1920 International Fair in Berlin, where he exhibited his images of the ravages of the war as they appeared in the city streets. One sees the bodies of the demobilized soldiers who are yet still "at war" in canvases such as War Cripples, Self-Portrait, Prague Street, Match Seller, The Skat Players, and The Barricade. Each of these works of Dix from 1920 portrays wounded survivors of the conflict, those massacred and torn apart by World War I and then the German Civil War, all amid the detritus of civilization, fine art and kitsch alike. Huge, horrible prostitutes remind one of the monstrosity of the front, of Eros and Thanatos.
Dix wanted to force his contemporaries to confront the cruelty of war itself and the brutality of postwar political life. His paintings trumpet the traumatic shock and mutilation, the prostheses and broken faces; they refuse to sanitize the conflict. Prague Street (1920) shows two war cripples passing one another, each without seeing the other, as before the war, while the bourgeois and the beggar are only two double-jointed puppets in a two dimensional space, parallel to the plaster torsos in the window of a shop selling erotic objects, between sado-masochism and the monstrance of horror. A dog holds in its mouth a newspaper with the words Juden Raus (Jews out). The world had come a long way since 1914.
Only in the second half of the 1920s did Dix return to the front and his wartime experience, particularly in a series of etchings he called Der Krieg (The war), in which he exposed the devastation that battle wreaked on bodies and souls. Skeletons are torn apart by shells, bodies melded into the upthrust soil, suicides; screams of distress and whispers of the dying wounded can be heard.
Like Max Beckmann (1884–1950), Dix employed the medieval triptych, which suggested the Trinity and offered the possibility of picturing shattering visions of the horror and grief fused with Catholic mysticism in terms of spiritual abandonment, the sufferings of martyrdom, and the imitation of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Form and content coalesce perfectly. His War Triptych (1929–1932) reveals, like the Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald (c. 1480–1528), three episodes in a soldier's life—departure for the trenches, the battle, and the return. The predella of the triptych shows soldiers who seem to be sleeping in their shelters, but the viewer sees they are dead under their shrouds. For them, there will not be a resurrection—and this is the message Dix, now a pacifist, wanted to convey.
In 1937 Nazis organized an exhibition of what they called "degenerate art" to prove the moral corruption of Weimar Germany. Works of Dix and George Grosz (1893–1959) were among the most prominent. Dix's art was opposed in every way to the aesthetic and social values of Nazism. It was neither respectable nor orderly, offered no message of comfort or security but instead screamed out with the despair of men caught in the turmoil of personal and collective drama. With his grasp of the significance of war, his works were subversion on canvas.
After exhibiting his paintings, the Nazis put some canvases in storage and destroyed others, including War Cripples and The Trench, as "insulting to the heroes of the Great War." Dix now underwent exile in his own country. He served in the 1939–1943 war and was a prisoner in Alsace. He would return again to the subject of the Great War in the 1960s but indirectly, perhaps only metaphorically, in his religious painting.
Barron, Stephanie, ed. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Los Angeles, 1991.
Becker, Annette, and Philippe Dagen. Otto Dix: Der Kreig/The War. Milan, 2003.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Entartete Kunst. Los Angeles, 1937. Exhibition catalog.
McGreevy, Linda. The Life and Works of Otto Dix: German Critical Realist. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1981.
Tate Gallery. Otto Dix, 1891–1969. London, 1992. Exhibit catalog.