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Otto Dix and The War

By Reinhold Heller


The German artist Otto Dix — born this day in 1891 — drew a remarkable image of himself in 1924 (the tenth anniversary of the beginning of World War I), simply rendered in bold lines of India ink, caricature-like in its exaggerated simplicity. In the drawing we see Dix as he gazes directly out at us through squinting eyes, sporting a small curving mustache, a cigarette dangling from his lips, wearing a battered steel helmet and tattered uniform while carrying a heavy machine gun. Directly above his self-portrait, he scrawled as an explanatory inscription: “This is how I looked as a soldier.” The drawing echoes in its conception innumerable propaganda images from all nations involved in the First World War, depicting wounded or exhausted soldiers who nonetheless stand tall and proud, resilient and strong as they gaze into an unknown distance. They are idealized heroic warriors, Greek gods in modern uniforms. Their images on posters and postcards were meant to inspire and reassure those at home that, despite all, their nation would triumph.

Dix’s self-portrait, however, is divested of these inspirational formulations and transforms them into an image of a bedraggled soldier in torn uniform and damaged helmet, unshaven and scarred. While the machine gun he holds serves as his identifying attribute, its massive, pristinely geometric and precisely drawn form also seems overwhelming; it is in contrast to the rumpled, disrupted contour of his uniform jacket and its burden causes him to list slightly, unsteadily. There are no heroics, no noble endurance in Dix’s self-portrait. Disheveled and dirty, supporting or supported by his massive weapon, Dix instead makes a simple statement: “Here I am.” Or, more correctly, as his 1924 inscription notes: “This is how I was.” At the same time, the very existence of the drawing also proclaims his survival of the war and his continuing life, not as the soldier depicted but as the artist who made the drawing.

Buried Alive (January 1916, Champagne) by Otto Dix. Source: Wikipaintings.

Dix made this self-portrait drawing to serve as the dedicatory image of Der Krieg (The War) – a sequence of 50 etchings, engravings, and aquatints in five portfolios – that he gave to his Berlin dealer Karl Nierendorf, who had commissioned the series. Der Krieg was published in an edition of 70 by Nierendorf, who also published accompanying pamphlets with depictions from the print series to publicize it among newspapers, labor unions and pacifist organizations. The prints offered a somber contrast to the numerous monuments honoring the fallen heroes of the conflict — often depicted in full uniform, sleeping peacefully, their noble bodies displaying no signs of wounds — being unveiled in numerous German cities in 1924, while German victories at the war’s beginning were being remembered and celebrated with elaborate military ceremonies. In contrast to these public displays, replete with fluttering flags and martial music, Dix’s Der Krieg offered a private recollection, silent but insistent in its focus on the everyday experience of the war and its multitude of horrors. With no sense of a sequential narrative, the 50 prints shift from scenes of a bomb- and artillery-shattered landscape (Crater Field near Dontrien Lit by Flares) to close-ups of wounded soldiers in the trenches (Wounded Man [Baupaume, Autumn 1916]), from soldiers in the company of prostitutes (Visit to Madame Germaine’s in Méricourt) to gas-masked, charging troops (Shock Troops Advance under Gas) and mud-covered soldiers eating, the decomposing bodies of their former comrades nearby (Mealtime in the Trench [Loretto Heights]). The series is a seemingly unending catalogue of terror, misery, horror, and death, inflicted on human beings, animals, and nature equally — one that not infrequently employs a sense of macabre, satirical humor. “I depicted primarily the horrible consequences of war,” Dix later stated. “I believe no one else has seen the reality of that war as I have: the privations, the wounds, the suffering. I chose a truthful reportage of war; I wanted to show the destroyed land, the corpses, the wounds.”

Dix’s war portfolio, its link to Nierendorf’s publicity campaign among unions and left-leaning groups, and his monumental painting The Trench (1920–3, destroyed), which was vehemently attacked for undermining the nobility of the German soldier and returned to Nierendorf by the museum that had purchased it, all tied Dix immediately and irrevocably to pacifist and leftist political attitudes in Germany in 1924. Although he insisted — perhaps somewhat ingeniously — that his war imagery was fundamentally apolitical and no more than an honest report of his memories of the war, the cacophony of nationalist criticism and military celebration drowned out his objections. Nierendorf sold only one complete Der Krieg portfolio.

Reinhold Heller is Professor emeritus of Art History and Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago. He has published extensively on modern German and Scandinavian art, including the entries on Otto Dix and Edvard Munch in Grove Art Online. He curated the exhibition The Birth of German Expressionism: ‘Brücke’ in Dresden and Berlin, 1905–1913 at the Neue Galerie, New York, in 2009, the first major American museum exhibition devoted to this group that initiated Expressionism in Germany.

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