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Otto Dix ( 1891-1969)

The Paris Review
In 1924, Otto Dix produced “Der Krieg” (The War), a cycle of fifty-one demented and harrowing prints that document his experience in WWI.

Otto Dix went to war voluntarily

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
For Throwback Thursday from our Library & Archives, view 1920s prints by German artist Otto Dix based on his memories of serving in World War I: http://gu.gg/LI2p1

Otto Dix

(click to enlarge)
"Parents of the Artist," oil on canvas by Otto Dix, 1921; in the Öffentliche … (credit: Courtesy of the Offentliche Kunstsammlung and the Emanuel Hoffman-Stiftung, Basel, Switz.; photograph, Hans Hinz)
(born Dec. 2, 1891, Untermhaus, Thuringia, Ger. — died July 25, 1969, Singen, Baden-Württemberg, W.Ger.) German painter and printmaker. He studied at the academies of Düsseldorf and Dresden and experimented with Impressionism and Dada before arriving at Expressionism with a nightmarish personal vision of contemporary social reality, depicting the horrors of war and the depravities of a decadent society with great emotional effect. He was appointed professor at the Dresden Academy in 1926 and elected to the Prussian Academy in 1931. His antimilitary works aroused the wrath of the Nazi regime and he was dismissed from his academic posts in 1933. His later work was marked by religious mysticism. See also Neue Sachlichkeit.

Always Outrageous, Frequently Disturbing

Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
“Mealtime in the Trench,” by Otto Dix, part of a retrospective of the artist’s works at the Neue Galerie. Dix was born in 1891 in Germany and saw action in World War I. More Photos >

Published: March 11, 2010

How German was Otto Dix? The question echoes through the retrospective of Dix’s unforgiving art, the first show of its kind ever held in North America, at the Neue Galerie. The answer delivered by this completely engrossing yet sadly flawed exhibition is: deeply, madly, truly.


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Otto Dix Foundation, Vaduz, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
A retrospective of Otto Dix’s work, featuring “Brothel Matron/Puffmutter,” continues at the Neue Galerie. More Photos »
More than any other artist, Dix made every stop on the itinerary of German modernism, including Realism, Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism and visionary, and he managed it all in one decade, the Roaring ’20s. The critic Paul Ferdinand Schmidt — who appears here in a James Ensor-like group portrait from 1923 along with the art dealers Günther Franke and Karl Nierendorf — conjured this whirlwind tour in 1926, when he described how “Dix comes along like a natural disaster: outrageous, inexplicably devastating, like the explosion of a volcano. One never knows what to expect from this wild man.”
There are many sides to Dix, the son of an ironworker, whose talent for drawing was spotted early and led to study in an art academy in Dresden, with its great museums. In the 1920s he was invited to paint Hans Luther, a chancellor of the Weimar Republic. But he not only painted very different subjects, like prostitutes and crime scenes, he did so in ways that pushed his materials to the limit. His 1923 watercolor of a brothel matron verges on automatism. Elsewhere he borrowed from folk art, as with the quasi-naïve “Sunday Stroll” (1922) and its nuclear family; its members seem to swing from invisible strings like puppets.
As German painters often still do, Dix believed that the medium’s entire history — especially the German part — was available for his use. He painted in the small-brush smooth-surface manner of Albrecht Dürer and looked to Lucas Cranach for inspiration. With contemporaries like Christian Schad, he contributed to a perverse new style of realist painting, called the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) that emerged in 1925. By then he had already presented “The Skat Players,” a scathing 1920 Cubo-Expressionist collage-painting of postwar German amputees playing cards, at the landmark exhibition that the Dadaists staged in Berlin that year. That work is not here, but a small, bristling, tightly wound study conveys some of its vehemence; it is, unfortunately, one of the few pencil drawings included in this version of the show, organized with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where it will be somewhat larger.
Dix portrayed a multitude of Germanic types — from stoic farmers to limbs-akimbo Weimar demimondaines — as surely as the German photographer August Sander, often with the same penchant for capturing the Lutheran dignity of his subjects. But Dix, who was born in 1891, 15 years after Sander, and saw action in World War I, tended toward something less generous and more freakish. I doubt that Sander would have considered titling an image “Dedicated to Sadists,” as Dix did with a 1922 watercolor. He insinuated all manner of sly caricature, disgust and fury into many of his renderings. In addition to the horribly disfigured faces of war veterans, he also liked to depict, usually in watercolor and ink, the mutilated bodies of murdered women, victims of lustmord, or sexual murder.
There are numerous half-nude female models, signaling an unrepentant, usually unflattering fixation on female breasts; Dix often seems to have equated women with dumbness, whether brute or weak. But he could be intermittently sympathetic, especially concerning the downtrodden or the creative, as evidenced by early portraits like “Working-Class Boy,” which calls to mind Alice Neel’s paintings, and “Unemployed Man,” and by later ones of the poet Iwar von Lücken and the philosopher Max Scheler. A borderline case is the rarely exhibited “Two Children” from 1921, whose subjects seem innocent and open, despite strangely deformed features, and is more Diane Arbus than Neel.
Dix himself, who appears in several photographs early in the exhibition, three taken by his friend Hugo Erfurth and one by Sander himself, looked impeccably German — or Aryan as it would soon be called. A dandyish dresser, he was lean and fair-haired, with high cheek bones and narrow, penetrating eyes. Depending on how he cut and combed his hair, he resembled a Holbein portrait, an international (or Nazi) spy or an ascetic artist.
Dix’s self-portraits could flatter. “Self-Portrait with Nude Model” (1923) features a chiseled and smartly clothed Dix with slicked-back hair and at his side a curvy, slightly dopey-looking woman, her hair frazzled — although she has been awarded the luminous eyes of a seer. (So has “Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann” from 1920.) Yet he could also be as hard on himself as on anyone else. In a black-chalk drawing from 1917, he has long, sharp eye-teeth and a demonic vampire look. In “The Artist’s Family” (1927), painted a decade later, his wife, daughter and infant son fill the frame, while he seems to intrude from the right, like a handyman with bad teeth who usually keeps to the barn.
As with most German artists of his generation, Dix’s formative experience was World War I. He emerged from nearly four years in the trenches physically unscathed but psychically scarred. He attempted exorcism with “Der Krieg” (“The War”), a suite of 50 mostly masterly etchings published by Nierendorf in 1924. They convey a searing sense of the physical horror of war — most prominently wounded and rotting flesh — that remains unmatched in the history of art.
When the Nazis loomed, Dix closed one eye, made satiric references and also turned to images of mothers dandling or nursing infants, although painting women sincerely was hardly his forte. And when the Nazis came to power he was quickly dismissed from his teaching position at the Dresden academy. He was included in the famous 1937 degenerate art exhibition, and the Nazis ultimately impounded 260 of his works from German collections. Dix went into internal exile on Lake Constance. There he took to painting hyper-detailed landscapes that sometimes leaned toward Caspar David Friedrich, sometimes toward Breughel tinged with some of the weirdness of Max Klinger. And he seems to have found religion: the last painting in the show, from 1939, depicts a giant St. Christopher with the Christ child on his shoulder, forging the waters between two shores that might almost have been painted by the 16th-century German Albrecht Altdorfer. He painted until his death in 1969, at the age of 77.
The etchings of “Der Krieg” get the Neue Galerie’s Dix retrospective off to a harrowing start. Displayed double-hung in their own gallery, they bear down on us relentlessly. It is a bit like being in the trenches yourself, especially given today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The prints show us soldiers with prostitutes or with one another, dancing in canteens, crouching in foxholes, clamoring across no man’s land, playing cards in the trenches (a sinister depiction of the hierarchy of strong and weak among enlisted men). Most of all Dix delivers the dead and dying in unstinting detail: horrific wounds, landscapes made of bodies and more bodies. Some are strung on barbed wire; others belong to civilians blown out of their beds by aircraft bombs. There are also bones, frozen, clawlike hands and, repeatedly, skulls — dead faces becoming skulls, worm-infested skulls and, in the final print, two skull-heads that seem to be attacking each other, a final testament to the futile unending self-destruction of war. Part of what makes the prints so riveting is their continual experimentation. Nearly every etching shows you a different side of the medium. Especially memorable is “Mealtime in the Trench,” with its striking contrast of acid-bitten, almost irradiated decay and the dark, densely lined form of a lone soldier.
In terms of intensity and coherence, the “War” is this show’s strongest gallery. There are plenty of riveting works in the rest of the display of course, but they come along one at a time, almost randomly without much sense of structure or curatorial oversight. For example “Memory of the Halls of Mirrors in Brussels,” the show’s only example of Dix’s raging Cubo-Expressionist works from 1920, is crammed into a small dark gallery with the etchings that Dix made prior to “Der Krieg.” It depicts a cackling nude courtesan on the knee of a debauched German soldier; they are highlighted against a silver background that throws no less than six reflections of them from various angles, including one showing the woman’s engorged genitalia.
In many ways Dix looked fresher and more imposing in the “Glitter and Doom” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago. He is especially hurt here by a shortage of black- chalk and pencil drawings. But the show might have gained immeasurably from a chronological installation. It would have been shocking to see the hysterical “Memory of the Halls of Mirrors” with Dix’s other paintings from 1919-21, which are the most tender and the most tenderly painted in the show.
One problem is that this exhibition is the first to be organized by Olaf Peters, an art historian at the University Halle-Wittenberg and a scholar in 20th-century German art (although he has overseen an excellent catalog for the show that is now the only full-dress Dix monograph in English that is currently in print).
The larger problem may be the Neue Galerie itself: the limits of its gallery space, a lack of clout that stalls major loans, and perhaps simply the lack of competition where 20th-century German art is concerned. The Neue may be a gift to New York, but it also something of a monopoly, which is never healthy. Dix’s achievement deserves a bigger museum. This show leaves us to piece together his wildness as best we can. There are wonderful rewards, but the first Dix retrospective in North America will also be the last for a while. It should have been overwhelming.

“Otto Dix” continues through Aug. 30 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street; (212) 628-6200, neuegalerie.org.

The first world war in German art: Otto Dix's first-hand visions of horror

In 1914 Otto Dix joined the German army as a fierce patriot; two years later he was mowing down British soldiers at the Somme. Yet few artists did more to reveal the true horror of the first world war

Art of the apocalypse: Otto Dix's hellish first world war visions – in pictures
Otto Dix's Stormtroops Advancing Under a Gas Attack, from Der Kreig
A detail from Otto Dix's Stormtroops Advancing Under a Gas Attack, from his 1924 set of first world war drawings, Der Kreig. Photograph: British Museum/DACS
In 1924 the German artist and war veteran Otto Dix looked back at the first world war on its 10th anniversary, just as we are doing on its 100th. What did he see? Today there is a fashion, in Britain, to celebrate the heroism of our grandfathers and their hard-won victory of 1914-1918. It's as if the clock is being turned back and the propaganda of the war believed all over again. Even the German war guilt clause written by the victors into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 has been turned into "fact" – after all, who wants to trawl through the complex causes of this conflict and face the depressing truth that it ultimately happened because no one in July 1914 understood how destructive a modern industrial war could be?
We need to shake off the nostalgia of a centenary's forgetful pomp and look at the first world war through fresh eyes – German eyes. For no other artists saw this dreadful war as clearly as German artists did. While British war artists, for example, were portraying the generals, Germans saw the skull in no man's land.
Der Krieg, the series of prints Otto Dix published in 1924, and which is about to go on view at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, is a startling vision of the apocalypse that really happened on Europe's soil 100 years ago.
A German soldier sits in a trench, resting against its muddy wall. He is smiling, but the grin is empty and hollow-eyed – for his face is a bare skull. He has been dead a while. No one bothered to bury him. His helmet is still on his skull, and his boots reveal a rotting ankle. In another print, a severed skull lies on the earth. Grass has grown on its crown. More grass resembles a moustache under its nose. Out of the eyes, vegetation bursts. Worms crawl sickeningly out of a gaping mouth.
Otto Dix's Skull, from his 1924 set of first world war drawings, Der Kreig Otto Dix's Skull, from his 1924 set of first world war drawings, Der Kreig Photograph: British Museum/DACS Dix had seen these things as a frontline soldier. At the time, he later confessed, he did not think about them too much. It was after he went home that the nightmares started. In what might now be called post-traumatic stress, he kept seeing the horrors of the trenches. He was compelled to show them, with nothing held back.
The prints gathered in Der Krieg (The War) are just part of the hideous outpouring of images he unleashed. It was as if Dix needed to vomit his memories in order to purge himself of all that haunted him. He engraved these black-and-white vignettes just after painting The Trench, a horrific masterpiece that distilled the western front into one grisly carnival of death. The painting was hugely controversial, and in 1937 the Nazis included it in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition that vilified modern German artists like Dix. The confiscated painting vanished during the second world war, perhaps burned in the bombing of Dresden.
Even with that loss, Dix's war art is a gut-wrenching act of witness. Yet he was not alone. He was part of a radical art movement that rejected the conflict and the European civilisation reponsible for it.
It was not at all obvious that a man such as Dix would create some of the defining pacifist images of the 20th century. In 1914 he was a fierce German patriot who joined up enthusiastically. He became a machine gunner and fought at the Battle of the Somme, efficiently mowing down British troops. He won the Iron Cross (second class) and began training to be a pilot. How did this courageous soldier turn into an anti-war artist?
To understand that, we need to comprehend that, during the first world war, a radical minority of Germans turned to artistic and political revolution, rather than nationalism. Like the British war poets, Germany's young artists came to hate the war, but unlike the poets, they organised to resist it.
Many simply could not take the front. Like Dix, the brilliant expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner joined up in 1914, but his mental health soon collapsed. In his 1915 painting Self-Portrait as a Soldier (currently in the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition The Great War in Portraits), he gives visual form to shell shock. The painter stands in uniform, his face yellow and eyes dazed, lurching like a sleepwalker, his right hand severed at the wrist.
Ludwig Kirchner's Self Portrait As Soldier (1915) 'Giving visual form to shell shock' … Ludwig Kirchner's Self Portrait As Soldier (1915). Photograph: National Portrait Gallery Kirchner had not really lost a hand. The bloody stump he waves is an image of artistic and sexual despair – war has unmanned him. Kirchner's pre-war paintings were sensual primeval nudes, but in his 1915 self-portrait he has turned helplessly from a naked model. It is not only a hand that has been amputated, but his very life force.
Like Dix and Kirchner, the poet Hugo Ball wanted to fight. He failed the medical three times. Visiting Belgium so he could at least see the front, he was so shocked that he turned against war, fled to Switzerland with his girlfriend, cabaret singer Emmy Hennings, and in 1916 founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. This was the birthplace of Dada, the most extreme art movement of the 20th century, which used nonsense, noise, cut-ups and chaos to repudiate war. "The beginning of Dada was really a reaction against mass murder in Europe," said Ball.
Dada was the counter-culture of the first world war, just as psychedelia was to be the counter-culture of Vietnam. At a time when supposedly rational decisions sent so many to their deaths – in 1916, the year Dada began, General Haig ordered an advance at the Somme that killed 19,000 British soldiers on a single day – Dada feigned madness. Its angriest practitioners were Germans.
Helmut Herzfeld wasn't so sure he wanted to be German, however. In 1916 he got so sick of the war's relentless propaganda that he changed his name to John Heartfield – a shockingly subversive adoption of the enemy's language. He got out of the army by pretending to be mad, and then, sent to work as a postman, threw away the mail to hinder Germany's war effort.
In 1919, at the First International Dada Art Fair in Berlin, Heartfield and another Dadaist, Rudolf Schlichter, hung a dummy of a German officer with a pig's face from the ceiling. It is impossible to think of Britain's generals being portrayed like this – but then Germany had lost, and Berlin was riven by revolution.
Dix also exhibited at the Dada fair. He got involved with this revolutionary movement after meeting its most charismatic exponent, George Grosz (much like Heartfield, he adopted the English "George" as a war protest). While Dix was at the front, Grosz was sending soldiers Dadaist "care packages" full of satirically useless stuff like neatly ironed white shirts.
George Grosz, Pillars of Society George Grosz's Pillars of Society (1926) Photograph: Akg-Images/AKS0 At the 1919 fair Dix exhibited a painting of maimed war veterans begging on a Berlin pavement. The city was full of damaged men. In another of his Dada paintings, Card-Playing War Cripples, men breathe through tubes and use feet to hold cards – they are no longer men, they are collages.
For it took a new art to do justice to the Great War. So Dada invented photomontage, a shattered mirror of the violence done to bodies by war. At the Dada fair in Berlin this was made explicit when, over the broken bodies painted by Dix, a photomontage by Grosz of a man who seems horribly disfigured was inserted. This ruined face resembles photographs of the war's victims – until you realise the "Victim of Society" is nothing but an Arcimboldo head made of cut-out newspaper pictures.
German artists showed the war with utter clarity when others turned away. While the Dadaists were cutting up society, the war veteran Max Beckmann painted his grotesque vision of a world gone mad, Die Nacht (The Night). Yet their warnings went unheeded. In 1924 Dix's war engravings were shown in an anti-war exhibition. In less than a decade he would be living in internal exile, a banned "degenerate artist", while leaders with very different memories of the first world war laid the foundations of the second.
The truth survives. In his 1924 drawing How I Looked as a Soldier, Dix portrays himself holding his machine gun. He's unshaven under his helmet and his eyes are narrow slits. Dix the truth-teller looks back at Dix the killing machine.
• Otto Dix's Der Krieg prints are at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, 17 May-27 July.