Der Krieg painter, Otto Dix, was one of the few artists who had made impressions of the World War I. Through a series of war theme paintings, he produced a series of macabre images based on one of the world’s significant events from the point of view of a veteran soldier. He was the soldier himself, manning the front line of his comrades as they fought against the British army.
Dix’s painting style is reminiscent of the northern Italian Renaissance masters. It is said that he was a self-taught artist who began as a painter of Renaissance prototypes, which include landscapes and portraits. Although he was trained under the fresco painters from Dresden, he grew accustomed to using easel painting as a technique for most of his works. He traveled around Germany to visit some exhibitions, particularly the art shows held by Vincent van Gogh in 1912 and by the Futurists in 1913.
By being able to visit those art exhibits, he quickly combined these style influences into his own Expressionism which is mainly characterized for its random coloring. However, the gruesome images of Dix’s war portraits had labeled his art as degenerative by the Nazis. He also went as far as joining the exhibitions conducted by the Dadaists in Germany. His revolutionary ideas were enough for him to be a part of such an exhibition during the post-World War I. There he befriended George Grosz, who was a prominent revolutionary leader.
Otto Dix was famous for Der Krieg (The War) of 1924, a series of prints depicting the atrocities of war recollected from the painter’s memory. It was his way of commemorating the wartimes ten years later, and the gothic images might be reflective of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by his experiences.
Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix was born on December 2, 1891 in Untermhaus, Germany. He was the son of a foundry worker and a seamstress. It is believed that it was his mother who introduced him to art during his boyhood, and thus, he would later find himself spending most times of his day at the studio of Fritz Amann, a painter who happened to be his cousin, too. This experience was a pivotal moment for the young Otto for it inspired him to become an independent artist.
He was provided with the support he could ask from his family and primary school teachers. Come 1906 he entered the studio of Carl Senff to be an apprentice. He would stay under the tutelage of Senff in the next four years, learning a lot about landscape painting. In 1910 he was accepted at the Academy of Applied Arts in Dresden to advance his studies. His training was then supervised by Richard Guhr as well as other notable art teachers.
When the Great War broke in 1914, he volunteered to be a machine-gunner of the German army. He would spend the next four years of his life there, witnessing the war scenes at first-hand. At some point, he would draw rough sketches of the war images using a Cubo-Futurist style. The war became his main subject matter throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s.
In his own words, the “War is something so animal-like: hunger, lice, slime, these crazy sounds… War was something horrible, but nonetheless something powerful… Under no circumstances could I miss it! It is necessary to see people in this unchained condition in order to know something about man”. Dix was fielded in at the artillery regiment in Dresden and in 1915 he was appointed non-commissioned officer of a team of machine-gunners on the Western frontline.
In 1917, Dix and his unit was re-assigned to man the Eastern front until the end of war in 1918. When he was still on the Western front, he bravely helped the German Spring Offensive unit to stop the advances of the British forces. His valor was recognized by the army that he was awarded the second class Iron Cross and was promoted to a higher rank. He did not die from the war, but only suffered a wound in the neck. In December 1918, he was finally discharged from military service.
As he kept himself preoccupied with war duties, his painting career was invisible on the market. It was only after ten years since the war broke out did he decide to remember those horrible events and translated them into paintings.
After Otto Dix was discharged from service, he immediately returned to Gera, his birth town. He presumably rested there and one year later he settled in Dresden. There he continued his art studies courtesy of Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste. At that same year, he established his own group called Dresden Secession, in which the dominant artistic style was Expressionism.
His activities in Dresden made him quite famous among the artistic circles. He met the famous Dadaist George Grosz and learned some new techniques from him. In fact, Dix’s style changed at the time as it he experimented with applying collage elements into his art works. The first Dada Fair in Berlin was one of his earliest art shows and was then followed by his participation in an exhibition held by the German Expressionists in Darmstadt of 1920.
In 1922, Dix married Martha Koch and settled in Dusseldorf. He began painting portraits at this point of his career, most of which were portrayals of notable patrons. In 1923, Otto Dix produced The Trench, which was one of his major works at the time. It depicted the mutilated bodies of soldiers after battling it out against the enemies.
However realistic the story there is behind the painting, the gruesomeness and potential psychological effects of the images to the audience factored in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum’s decision to cover the painting with a curtain. Additionally, former Cologne Mayor Konrad Adenauer wasn’t too happy with the purchase of the painting that he forced the museum’s curator to resign in 1925.
By 1926, Dix became an official art professor at Dresden Akademie and this cemented another high remark in his career. The following year was another significant milestone in Dix’s career as he executed a triptych titled Metropolis. The painting is his attempt to mock the Weimar Republic of Germany for its lavish lifestyle as a way to cope up with the catastrophic results of losing to Britain. There he painted disfigured bodies of veterans on the streets which used to be a common sight during the 1920’s. These veterans were once proud of their country but little did they know that after the Great War, their relevance to the existing Weimar society would be forgotten.
In 1924, as Germany celebrated the 10th anniversary of World War I, Dix’s The War was published. The collection of fifty etchings represented nothing but the horrific experiences a soldier could ever find himself into when he’s at war; death, decay, agony, fear, courage, and patriotism. In most of the paintings though, the recurring theme has always been hellish nightmares.
While the British people commemorated the heroism of their war veterans, Dix looked back at the war time and it reminded him of the German guilt everybody felt as they bowed down to signing the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. He re-visited the war through a genuine, patriotic German standpoint and he saw skulls and smelt of death in the land. Thus, Der Krieg became a series of rather repelling vision of the past and of events that really took place in Germany years ago.
Among his etchings for Der Krieg, The Skull series is the most notable and popular. It is a depiction of a soldier’s skull-head resting against a muddy soil. The figure may be smiling but devoid of light emotion matched with a pair of hallowed eyes. Apparently, no one on his unit bothered to give him proper burials as he was left to decay in a trench. This etching is accompanied by another print which shows a severed skull rests on a soil and grass has already grown on top of it, looking like a crown. Worms are swarming out of the hallowed eyes and the half-opened mouth.
Dix undoubtedly had seen enough to portray such kinds of grotesque images but only to appear ten years later, as he was not bothered by it while on the field. The powerful nightmares compelled him to paint them down as though releasing himself free from the horrors of war. Der Krieg was no less controversial during his lifetime and the Nazis expectedly labeled it as a Degenerate Art. However, some of his confiscated paintings were now lost due to the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War.
Despite of losing his works to war, he still continued painting. He joined a group of radical revolutionaries who rejected leaders responsible for those wars. It is worth mentioning that post-WWII, Dix was a known patriot who would do everything to defend Germany but that changed as his contemporaries have come to realize that nothing is gain in war. Another reason was he simply could no longer take the war front assignments considering his aging body and mental health. Lots of his contemporaries like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Hugo Ball, Helmut Herzfeld, and George Grosz had to resist the urge to join the front because they were either enduring a deteriorating state of health or got sick and tired of the war propaganda.
After the World War II, Otto Dix retired in Dresden and stayed there until 1966. His paintings at this stage of his career were portrayals of religious allegories and post-war problems. He produced Ecce homo with self-likeness behind barbed wire in 1948 and a femme fatale portrait of Three Prostitutes.
By 1959, Germany was already divided into two territorial parts and he was to receive the Grand Merit Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany. Dix’s later years had been polished with accolades and recognitions from different award-giving bodies like the Lichtwark Prize, Martin Andersen Nexo Art Prize, Hans Thoma Prize, and the Rembrandt Prize.
Otto Dix died of stroke while in his home at Singen am Hohentwiel on July 25, 1969. His body was laid to rest at Hammenhofen on Lake Constance.