Otto Dix During and After World War I

By Justin Fearn

 

During the First World War and the years shortly after, Germany was in a state of turmoil.  No other painter has been able to capture this turmoil as eloquently as Otto Dix.  This is due to the fact that Dix was able to experience the war firsthand as a machine gunner on the front lines and as a resident in Germany in the years following.  Dix’s experience in the war and the instability of Germany in the post WWI period were the greatest influence on his paintings done during the First World War and the beginning of the Weimar Republic in Germany.

Otto Dix was born on December 2, 1891 to working class parents named Franz Dix ad Louise née Amann.[1]  He was exposed to art at a very early age by his mother, who was a poet in her youth, and by a cousin named Fritz Amann, who was a painter in Naumburg.[2]  Dix attended elementary school in Gera-Untermhaus in 1905.[3]  Dix was given his first drawing lesson in elementary school by Ernst Schunke, a teacher who recognized the talent of the young man.[4]  Schunke was a major person of influence in Dix’s early life.  Schunke supported his artwork and even got him a scholarship at the Dresden School for Commercial Arts, which Dix attended between the years 1909 and 1914.[5]  While at the school, Dix studied under Richard Guhr.[6]  While the school might not have been a great experience for Dix, his time in Dresden was well spent.  By visiting the German and French painting exhibitions on display in Dresden during this time period, Dix was exposed to Symbolist, Impressionist, and Cubist art forms early on in his career.[7]  It was during this time period that Dix began his first paintings, drawings, and gouaches.[8]  Dix’s first works were mostly self-portraits and landscapes that were done in a similar style to sixteenth century German painting and Art Nouveau.[9]

Dix was portrayed by his friend and fellow painter, Kurt Lohse, as being an ardent “Nietzschean.” [10]  Dix’s beliefs in the teachings of Nietzsche led him to accept all of the things that happened to him during his life and embrace them.  This included the war that would soon begin in Germany.  Dix’s love of Nietzsche and desire to experience everything, led him to voluntarily join the German army in 1914 at the start of World War I.[11]  Dix went through his training for the army in both Dresden and Bautzen.[12]  He was shipped out to join the trench warfare outside Reims on September 21, 1915.[13]  He was a good soldier and rose through the ranks quickly receiving promotion to the position of officer and an Iron Cross, second class, by November of 1915.[14]  Dix fought in trench warfare on both fronts of the war and fought mostly on the front lines.[15]  During the war he was injured on five separate occasions.[16]  However, this did not stop his love of painting and drawing.  Between the war years of 1915 and 1918, Dix drew vivid sketches showing what was happening in the war on 46 postcards, which he then sent back home.[17]  In October of 1918, Dix was promoted to the rank of vice-sergeant.[18] Shortly thereafter, in December of 1918, Dix was discharged from the army and returned to Dresden to continue his studies.[19]

Dix experienced the war on a very personal level that was not shared by many artists who also participated in World War I.  He fought on the fronts in the trenches sometimes in hand-to-hand combat as a machine gunner and watched many of his fellow soldiers die in the process.  His experiences in the war served as the basis for several hundred drawings that he completed on the battlefield as well as much of the work done in the post war period. [20] The drawings done while Dix was on the frontline differed greatly from the portfolio of work entitled Der Krieg that was completed by Dix in 1924.[21]   Der Krieg was a portfolio that consisted of etchings and aquatints.[22]  Dix created these by using acid and a needle, which, “conveyed both the physical and moral destruction that he had witnessed.”[23]  The images Dix portrayed in Der Krieg are some of the most vivid depictions of World War I.[24] In Der Krieg, Dix portrayed the mutilated bodies of soldier, decomposing limbs, and bombed landscapes among other horrible depictions of war.  By portraying the war in this manner, Dix is showing the viewers a side of the war that they have probably never seen before.  It is grotesque and a true testament that he was alive to create this work of art.

After World War I the situation in Germany deteriorated rapidly.  Postwar inflation caused the German mark to drop from a prewar exchange rate of 25 to the dollar to a post war exchange rate of 162 marks to the dollar.[25]  By November of 1923, a single dollar was worth 4.2 trillion marks.[26]  The German currency and economic market collapsed and German money was now worth virtually nothing.  Unemployment, hunger, and malnutrition were widespread in Germany.[27]  Beggars and crippled war veterans from the First World War lined the streets in every German city.  The middle class was completely wiped out because of the rampant inflation.  Dix used these desperate scenes as the theme in some of his paintings such as Die Skatspieler, which depicts three extremely crippled war veterans playing cards using prosthetic limbs because they had lost their arms and legs during the war.[28]  This panting was painted in the style of Dada, which Dix adopted in the years directly after World War I, 1919 and 1920.[29]

The term “Neue Sachlichkeit,” or New Objectivity, was the name given to the new attitude and frame of mind that the Germans had during the post World War I era in Germany .[30]  This attitude was an almost machine like, no nonsense, all business attitude.  This attitude came out of the realization that the war was over and things were far worse than they ever had been before.[31]  The Germans had lost and thousands of young men had died as a result of this loss.  This term not only referred to the new attitude of the Germans, but also to the new style of painting, photography, and design that arose in Germany during this time because of this.[32]  Dix was one of the first painters to adopt the new style.  New Objectivity differed from previous German Expressionism in that it moved in the direction of having more realistic forms.[33]  The painters sought to paint objects realistically and without any romanticism.  This realism was manifested in Dix’s post war paintings such as The Trench, which he began in Dresden in 1920 and completed in Düsseldorf in 1923.[34]  This was the first piece of work done in his series of war paintings in the Weimar Republic.[35]  This painting depicts the aftermath of an artillery assault on a German Trench during World War I.[36] The painting is filled with dead bodies in different states of decomposition, and was painted by Dix in excruciating detail.  Dix got the inspiration for this painting, and others like it in the series of war paintings done during the Weimar Republic in Germany, from his own experiences fighting as a machine gunner during World War I.

World War I was a monstrous event that shaped the future of the world forever.  Likewise, Otto Dix’s experiences on both fronts of the war as a fighter, and in the post war Germany shaped his painting drastically.  He drew inspiration from the dire situations that he encountered to use in his artwork.  His depictions of the war, and post war Germany were done in vivid detail.  This is because of the style of New Objectivity that Dix and other Germans adopted as a result of the horrors of World War I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Barron, Stephanie. Introduction. German Expressionism 1915-1925: The Second           Generation. Edited by Stephanie Barron. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.

 

Crockett, Dennis. “The Most Famous Painting of the “Golden Twenties”? Otto Dix and          the Trench Affair.” Art Journal. 51. no. 1 (1992): 72-80.          http://www.jstor.org/stable/777257 (accessed March 27, 2012).

 

Eberle, Matthias. Otto Dix and ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’. German Art in the Twentieth          Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985. Edited by Christos Joachimides,      Norman Rosenthal, and Wieland Schmied. London: Prestel-Verlag, 1985.

 

Herrmann, Ingo. Biography. Otto Dix. Edited by Olaf Peters. Munich, Germany:           Prestel, 2010.

 

Karcher, Eva. Otto Dix, 1891-1969: His Life and Works. Köln, Germany: Benedikt          Taschen, 1988.

 

Löffler, Fritz. Dresden from 1913 and the Dresdner Sezession Gruppe 1919. German      Expressionism 1915-1925: The Second Generation. Edited by Stephanie          Barron. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.

 

Peters, Olaf. Foreword. Otto Dix. Edited by Olaf Peters. Munich, Germany: Prestel,       2010.

 

Schubert, Dietrich. Death in the Trench: The Death of the Portrait?. Otto Dix. Edited   by Olaf Peters. Munich, Germany: Prestel, 2010.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Eva Karcher, Otto Dix, 1891-1969: His Life and Works, (Köln, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, 1988), 21.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ingo Herrmann, “Biography,” Otto Dix, ed. Olaf Peters (Munich, Germany: Prestel, 2010), 234.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Karcher, Otto Dix, 24.

[6] Dietrich Schubert, “Death in the Trench: The Death of the Portrait?,” Otto Dix, ed. Olaf Peters (Munich, Germany: Prestel, 2010), 33.

[7] Karcher, Otto Dix, 24.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Karcher, Otto Dix, 26.

[10] Schubert, Death in the Trench, 35.

[11] Olaf Peters, “Foreword,” Otto Dix, ed. Olaf Peters (Munich, Germany: Prestel, 2010), 16.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Karcher, Otto Dix, 38.

[16] Dennis Crockett, “The Most Famous Painting of the “Golden Twenties”? Otto Dix and the Trench Affair,” Art Journal, 51, no. 1 (1992): 72-80, http://www.jstor.org/stable/777257 (accessed March 27, 2012), 72.

[17] Karcher, Otto Dix, 38.

[18] Schubert, Death in the Trenches, 37.

[19] Peters, Foreword, 17.

[20] Stephanie Barron, “Introduction,” German Expressionism 1915-1925: The Second Generation, ed. Stephanie Barron (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988), 20.

[21] Barron, Introduction, 22.

[22] Barron, Introduction, 20.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Barron, Introduction, 22.

[25] Barron, Introduction, 29.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Fritz Löffler, “Dresden from 1913 and the Dresdner Sezession Gruppe 1919,” German Expressionism 1915-1925: The Second Genertion, ed. Stephanie Barron (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988), 71.

[30] Matthias Eberle, “Otto Dix and ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’,” German Art in the Twentieth Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985, ed. Christos Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal, and Wieland Schmied (London: Prestel-Verlag, 1985), 452.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Löffler, Dresden from 1913, 60.

[34] Crockett, Otto Dix and the Trench Affair, 72.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

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