Today’s thread is dedicated to the German artist Otto Dix (1891 – 1969), an artist whose work during the first half of the 20th Century reflected the tumultuous history of his country. Painting from the age of fourteen, he went on to study at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, but quit his vocation to fight in the First World War. His experiences of the carnage of the Front profoundly changed him as a person and as an artist.
Dix was disgusted at how everyone in society seemed to wish to simply forget the horrors of the war, and wanted to confront them.
In 1924, using different print-making techniques, he created the series Der Krieg (The War), featuring the corpses of horses, fields of craters, and the skeletal remains of soldiers still sitting in the positions where they were killed. His oil painting Der Schützengraben (The Trench), was described by the historian and the first director of MoMa in New York Alfred H. Barr as “perhaps the most famous picture in post-war Europe … a masterpiece of unspeakable horror.” It depicted the aftermath of a nighttime artillery raid, in the “cold, sallow, ghostly light of dawn”, filled with mutilated bodies and fragments of bones, skulls, flesh, and blood. The public reacted with shock and outrage when it was first exhibited.
He also began to accentuate his subject’s worst physical traits, as can be seen in his 1922 painting, Portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann, which is now exhibited in the Art Gallery of Ontario. The doctor, a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist is depicted with ghoulishly green skin and bulging eyes. He focused heavily on creating work that was critical of German society, depicting veterans horribly crippled and begging for money in the streets, poverty-stricken prostitutes, and the dark subjects of violence and death.
When the Nazi party forced their way into absolute power, Dix was fired from his teaching job and 260 of his works by were confiscated. Whilst some were to survive in private hands, most would be lost.
In 1937 Der Schützengraben was included in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in Berlin. The exhibition touted modern art as sick and morally bankrupt, as well in Dix’s case, unpatriotic and disrespectful of Germany’s soldiers.
Dix himself was forced into exile, both physically and artistically. Living near the Swiss border, he conformed outwardly, his paintings turning into inoffensive and bucolic landscapes as mandated by Goebbel’s Cultural Ministry. In his forties at the end of the war, he was was conscripted into the Volkssturm, the national militia established by Hitler to defend Germany during the invasions of the Allied Powers. He was captured by French troops and released in February 1946.
Dix eventually returned to Dresden and remained there until his death. After the war most of his paintings took on a more religious bent.
It had been thought that his most famous work had been destroyed alongside hundreds of other modernist artworks in an open bonfire after the conclusion of the Degenerate Art exhibition, but a receipt from 1940 suggested the painting had been sold on to an art dealer. What happened to it afterwards is unknown. Perhaps it was looted and hidden, but it has never been recovered, and only photographs remain.
Have a great day and take care, everyone!