Otto Dix, artist on the front line
Although he created some of the most powerful anti-war images ever seen, the German artist maintained an ambivalence about the conflict he volunteered for and survived
Painting by Otto Dix, ‘War Cripples,’ at a Nazi exhibition of Degenerate Art at the Munich Hofgarten, July 1937. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Staff members take down the triptych ‘Der Krieg’ (War) by Otto Dix, painted 1929-1932, in the Albertinum building at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen for restoration on July 22, 2013 in Dresden, Germany. Photograph: Matthias Rietschel/Getty Images)
The German artist Otto Dix went to war, willingly. Unlike many who fought, he had no misgivings, not initially. Not for several years in fact. Patriotism was only a small part of it; at the age of 22 he craved a life-affirming experience.
He volunteered in 1914 and spent much of the next four years as a non-commissioned officer, a heavy artillery gunner, on both the western and eastern fronts. He was decorated with the Iron Cross, second class. Wounded on several occasions – once almost fatally, in Flanders, when shrapnel entered his neck close to a main artery – he endured, horrified at what he saw, yet also fascinated, absorbing it all.
He drew daily, and also kept a diary. “Even war must be regarded as a natural consequence,” he wrote. “Corpses are impersonal.”
In the context of his later responses, expressed through his images of the conflict, among the most harrowing ever created, including the Der Krieg series, Dix seems an odd man out. The natural revulsion and despondence appear to be missing. He had discovered the writings of Nietzsche in about 1911, when he was 20.
His reading gave him, a working-class lad, by then studying at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts, not only the impetus but the confidence to break away from the narrowness of the provincial world into which he had been born and to take part in what seemed an exciting intellectual adventure: the remaking of Europe through the collapse of traditional belief systems, the death of God. Man as superman beckoned. Nietzsche had died in 1900, and by 1912 the young Otto Dix had created what was to be his only sculpture, a bust of Friedrich Nietzsche.
In 1914, Dix, not a particularly bookish young man, owned seven of the philosopher’s major works in cheap paperback editions. Nietzsche had become a cult figure for German youth. Dix was a tough, an image he cultivated, and also an outsider, not part of the Berlin arts scene. Whereas fellow artists, such as Ernst Kirchner (1880-1938) and George Grosz (1893-1959) regarded the mobilisation process as an erosion of individuality, Dix revelled in it.
“I had to go to war,” he said in an interview not long before his death in 1969. “I had to live through it. I had to experience what it was like when someone near me was suddenly hit by a bullet and fell . . . I am such a realist, I had to see it all with my own eyes . . . the hunger, the fleas, the mud, the s**tting in one’s pants with fear . . . To be crucified, to experience the deepest abyss of life . . . If you want to be a hero, you also have to affirm the s**t; only through being there and experiencing for yourself can you become a hero.”
A few years earlier he had conceded that war was a dreadful business, “but nevertheless very powerful. I couldn’t possibly miss it. In order to know something about men, you must have seen them in this unfettered state.”
‘Strange beauty’Reading some of his thoughts and his obvious fascination with what he saw as “the strange beauty of it all”, it would be easy to consider him voyeuristic. Except that he was there facing death and he witnessed horrors, the same ones that caused writer Siegfried Sassoon, another artist who in the beginning felt he was about to embark on a grand adventure, to challenge the British authorities; the same horrors that stalked the imagination of JRRTolkien, who, like Dix, saw action at the Somme, the battle that saw the introduction of tanks.
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Dix volunteered and was assigned to a field artillery regiment in Dresden. Early in 1915 he was sent to Bautzen to train as a gunner. He was keen to go to the front and took part in the autumn campaign in Champagne, near Rheims, in northern France.
By the following year he was on the Somme and was involved in several battles before moving on to Flanders. Pity and the betrayal of youthful idealism do not appear to have affected him. Instead he was open-eyed, responding to the energy of the turmoil around him. In this, he shares the response of another painter, the Hungarian Béla Zombory-Moldován, whose eerie memoir, The Burning of the World, which was published for the first time in any language last year, was dominated by the visual images emerging from the chaos.
Throughout the war Dix sent about 300 postcards to a friend back in Dresden. Helene Jakob was the daughter of the caretaker of the School of Arts and Crafts. Her father had helped him out by pointing him toward commissions, while Helene sent him food and drawing materials. Overall, he produced a huge number of images, more than 600 drawings and gouaches, which he dutifully sent home to his family, a record of war as seen through the eyes of a soldier.
About the best way of grasping Dix’s unemotional, impartial reporter’s attitude while at the front is to think of the detachment of young Jim in JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984) .One of the things soldiers often recall about war is the waiting, the long stretches of silence. Dix drew all the time, intent on recording the experience. His drawings are impersonal reports, and while he did draw the dead, his central preoccupation while at the front was the transformation of the physical landscape.
Barbed wire and ruins, not maimed soldiers, dominate. It was as if during that period he viewed war as little more than a natural phenomenon. Far more was to follow.
Early yearsBorn on December 2nd 1891, Dix was the eldest son of Franz, an iron worker and Louise, a seamstress. They had three younger children. Home was Untermhaus, a village near Gera in Thuringia. The family was working class but not poor. There was no financial hardship and the young Otto had an early introduction to art through his cousin, Fritz Amann, a landscape painter who had a studio.
In later life, Dix used to claim that it was the smell of paint in his cousin’s studio that drew him to art. His formal education ended in 1905, yet he had been lucky in having a good art teacher, Ernst Schunke, who recognised his ability. Between 1905 and 1909, Dix completed an apprenticeship with a decorative painter in Gera.
With the support of a grant he was then able to study in Dresden, where he arrived in the autumn of 1909. It is interesting that his course was geared to learning the techniques and motifs of interior decoration. While at the School of Arts and Crafts he was not taught painting, yet he did sketch and continued his painting under Schunke’s supervision. Dix’s earliest works are Impressionist in style.
Even as early as 1911, however, his allegorical approach as an artist was already evident, albeit heavy-handedly. Growth and Decay is a traditional still life executed in oil. A vase of picked and fading flowers is depicted, along with a skull.
Soon after this he completed Self-Portrait with Carnation (1912), in which the young artist glowers at the viewer in much the way Dix conducted himself beyond the canvas. The flower held between his fingers suggests an ironic touch. In an interview, he said his idea had been to “paint like the masters of the early Renaissance”.
He would paint many self-portraits throughout his career, and two of the most telling date from 1914. Self-Portrait as a Soldier depicts his newly shaven head thrust at an aggressive angle and echoes the lines from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra: “The man consummating his life dies his death triumphantly.”
Far less defiant is the subject’s demeanour in Self-Portrait with Artillery Helmet, in which there is an apparent suggestion of apprehension, perhaps fear, in the face beneath that great symbol of German military might, the Prussian spiked helmet.
Vision of warBy the following year Dix had consolidated his vision of war in a remarkable Futurist work, Self-Portrait as Mars. Using a bold palette, he painted it while he was still in Dresden, completing his artillery training. Imagined scenes of war are superimposed upon a face determined to meet the onslaught.
Soon after arriving at the French front in the autumn of 1915, much of his mythologising had disappeared. Self-Portrait as a Practice Target creates the impression of how the subject would appear through the sights of an enemy gun. It is a study of resignation and dread, the soldier as canon fodder.
There are four pictures in particular, all gouache on paper, completed during the war, which highlight his genius for evoking mood. Trenches (1917) is possible the defining study of no man’s land. Grey and black trenches reflecting a setting sun – or it could be the glow of distant bombardment – possess a measured eloquence. The only trace of man is the damage done and some crosses marking graves. It is a powerful work, chilling and assured.
Evening Sun, Ypres (1918), dominated by a blazing sun, reveals human beings as insignificant. More symbolic than abstract, it apparently dismisses the relevance of war.
Awakening (1918), in which a cavalry unit prepares the horses, takes resurrection as its theme. There are echoes of Wassily Kandinsky and also of the German expressionist Franz Marc, who died at Verdun in 1916.
Soldier with Pipe (1918) reveals Dix exploring Cubism and returning to the Futurism of Self-Portrait as Mars.
On paper at least, it seemed that Dix had a good war. He had remained active as an artist throughout and returned intact, at least in body. During the closing months he was transferred to Silesia, where, after he had recovered from the serious neck wounds suffered in Flanders, he was transferred to be trained as a pilot. He was still in training as the war ended. Many of his more ideologically inspired fellow artists criticised him as apolitical; elsewhere, he was denounced for his concentration on relentless ugliness, which he would use to satiric effect in his studies of German society in the years following the Great War.
Yet the Dix who had gone to war and survived was far more damaged than he had realised. He began having nightmares about crawling through bombed houses. What he had gone through suddenly began to prey on his mind. The result was Der Krieg (War), a sequence of 51 etchings which, since its first appearance in 1924, has become recognised as a definitive rejection of war. It offers a profound and sustained insight into what it was like: dead and rotting corpses, devastation, and menace. Dix the returned survivor is saying: “This is what man can inflict and this is how he suffers.”
Nothing else in graphic art approaches its intent. Dix looked towards Goya’s The Disasters of War, a series of 82 completed prints between 1810 and 1820, and took the theme to darker, more ghoulish depths.
Lasting traumaFor Dix, war had gone beyond an experience; it had become a lasting trauma. He had returned to Dresden and, by 1920, had begun to make clear his new direction. Skat Players (oil on canvas) is a parody of Cézanne’s The Card Players. Dix’s trio are horrifically disfigured. The injuries are based on photographs of men who returned from the front maimed for life. One of them has a mechanical jaw. The replacement body parts appear to be made from the debris of war. In subsequent works, veterans are depicted as beggars shunned by the public, their heroism ignored.
In ways, Dix’s cathartic response was mirrored by Erich Maria Remarque in his novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Yet far closer to Dix’s brutal realism is that of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, also published in 1929. In that novel, there are no idealist young dreamers such as Remarque’s young Paul Bäumer. Instead an angry everyman, Franz Biberkopf, who was once an ordinary soldier, just a soldier, and is now a petty criminal, is adrift in a city as unforgiving as war.
Dix’s pictures of war, with their images of dehumanised soldiers lurching forward in gas masks, of corpses, of worms wriggling through the empty eye sockets of a skull, and of bewildered spectres, invites us to look at the destruction it causes.
Denounced as a degenerate artist by the Nazis, Dix, who would not abandon the subject because he feared people would repeat its horrors, completed his great War Triptych paintings in 1932. That work and his painting Trench Warfare – believed to have been destroyed during the bombing of Dresden – cost him his teaching post. In one of the many ironies that stalked him throughout his life, Dix, having served briefly in the German army in the second World War, then became a prisoner of war.
His work was not done in search of release. “It’s not true that you do that for the peace of your soul . . . the reason for doing it is the desire to create,” he said.
Most crucial, though, when considering Otto Dix, is the fact that he does not actually blame anyone. True to the essential ambivalence of the best art, this acclaimed anti-war artist sees conflict simply as a catastrophe, which explains why he never adopted a political stance. He died in 1969, and to the end insisted he could never forget being a soldier at the front.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times