Otto Dix

Otto Dix

Otto Dix, the son of Franz Dix (1862-1942) and Louise Amann (1864-1953) was born in Unternhaus, Germany, in 1891. After attending elementary school he worked locally until 1910 when he became a student at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts. To help fund his education, he accepted commissions and painted portraits of local people.

On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Dix volunteered for the German Army and was assigned to a field artillery regiment in Dresden.

In the autumn of 1915 Dix was sent to the Western Front where he served as a non-commissioned officer with a machine-gun unit. He was at the Somme during the major allied offensive during the summer of 1916. Dix was wounded several times during the war. One one occasion he nearly died when a shrapnel splinter hit him in the neck.

In 1917 he fought on the Eastern Front and after Russia negotiated a peace with Germany, Dix returned to France where he took part in the German Spring Offensive. By the end of the war in 1918 Dix had won the Iron Cross (second class) and reached the rank of vice-sergeant-major.

After the war Dix developed left-wing views and his paintings and drawings became increasingly political. Like other German artists such as John Heartfield and George Grosz, Dix was angry about the way that the wounded and crippled ex-soldiers were treated in Germany. This was reflected in paintings such as War Cripples (1920), Butcher's Shop (1920) and War Wounded (1922).

In 1923 Dix's painting, The Trench was purchased by the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. When the painting was exhibited in 1924 its depiction of decomposed corpses in a German trench created such a public outcry that the museum's director, Hans Secker, was forced to resign.

In 1924 Dix joined with other artists who had fought in the First World War to put on a travelling exhibition of paintings called No More War! Dix also produced a book of etchings, The War(1924) that was later described by one critic as "perhaps the most powerful as well as well as the most anti-war statements in modern art".

During this period, Dix made extensive use of photographs that had been taken of German soldiers who had been badly disfigured by warfare. Many of these photographs were later used by another German anti-war artist, Ernst Friedrich, in his book War Against War! (1924).

Otto Dix, Trench Warfare (1932)
Otto Dix, Trench Warfare (1932)

Dix worked for six years on what is considered to be his two great masterpieces, Metropolis (1928) and Trench Warfare (1932). In the left-hand panel of Metropolis, Dix shows himself as a war cripple entering Berlin and being greeted by a row of beckoning prostitutes. Trench Warfareis also a triptych (a painting on three panels side by side) deals more directly with the First World War. The left-handed panel shows German soldiers marching off to war, the central panel is a scene of destroyed houses and mangled bodies, and the right-hand panel side panel shows soldiers struggling home from the war.

In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany. Hitler and his Nazi government disliked Dix's anti-military paintings and arranged for him to be sacked from his post as art tutor at the Dresden Academy. Dix's dismissal letter said that his work "threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves".

Dix left Dresden and went to live near Lake Constance in the south-west of Germany. Soon afterwards, two of Dix's paintings, The Trench and War Cripples, appeared in an Nazi exhibition to discredit modern art. The show called Reflections of Decadence was held in Dresden Town Hall. Later, several of Dix's anti-war paintings were destroyed by the Nazi authorities in Germany.

Dix responded to the Reflections of Decadence exhibition by painting another powerful anti-war painting, Flanders (1934). Inspired by inspired by a passage from Le Fe, a First World War novel written by the French soldier, Henri Barbusse, the painting shows a scene from the Western Front. In the picture dead bodies float in water-filled shell-holes while those soldiers still alive resemble rotting tree stumps.

After the Nazis came to power artists in Germany could only work as an artist, buy materials or show their work, if they were members of the Imperial Chamber of Fine Arts. Membership was controlled by the Nazi government and in 1934 Dix was allowed to become a member in return for agreeing to paint landscapes instead of political subjects.

Although Dix mainly painted landscapes during this period, he still produced the occasional allegorical painting which contained coded attacks on the Nazi government. In 1938 several of these paintings, including Flanders, appeared in a one-man exhibition in Zurich.

In 1939 Dix was arrested and charged with involvement in a plot on Hitler's life. However, he was eventually released and the charges were dropped. In the Second World War Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm (German Home Guard). In 1945 Dix was forced to join the German Army and at the end of the war was captured and put into a prisoner-of-war camp.

Released in February 1946, Dix returned to Dresden, a city that had been virtually destroyed by heavy bombing. Most of Dix's post-war paintings were religious allegories. However, paintings such as Job (1946), Masks in Ruins (1946) and Ecce Homo II (1948) dealt with the suffering caused by the Second World War.

Otto Dix died in 1969.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1963 Otto Dix explained why he had joined the German Army on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I'm therefore not a pacifist at all - or am I? - perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that for myself. I'm such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it's like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths for life for myself; it's for that reason that I went to war, and for that reason I volunteered.

(2) Otto Dix, interviewed by Maria Wetzel (1963)

As a young man you don't notice at all that you were, after all, badly affected. For years afterwards, at least ten years, I kept getting these dreams, in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through.

Not that painting would have been a release. The reason for doing it is the desire to create. I've got to do it! I've seen that, I can still remember it, I've got to paint it.

(3) Otto Dix, Neues Deutschland (December, 1964)

The painting (Trench Warfare) began life ten years after the First World War. During this time I had made a lot of studies, so that I could give artistic expression to my war experiences. In 1928 I felt ready to tackle the big subject. At this time there were a lot of books in the Weimar Republic once again peddling the notions of the hero and heroism, which had long been rendered absurd in the trenches of the First World War. People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people's powers of resistance.

(4) Julius Meier-Graefe reviewed Otto Dix's painting, The Trench, in July, 1924.

The trench is not only badly, but disgracefully painted, with a penetrating delight in detail, not I hasten to add, in sensuous detail but in matter-of-fact detail. Brains, blood and entrails can be painted in a way which make's one's mouth water. This Dix - forgive the crude expression - makes you want to throw up.

(5) Otto Dix's painting, Flanders, was inspired by a passage from Le Fe, a First World War novel written by the French soldier, Henri Barbusse.

In the same place, where we had thrown ourselves down in the night, we wait for daybreak. Half dosing, half sleeping, continually opening and closing our eyes, paralyzed, shattered and freezing, we stare in disbelief at the return of the light. Painfully and swaying like an invalid, I raise myself up and look around. The oppressive weight of my wet greatcoat pulls me down. Next to me lie three completely disfigured shapes.

Otto Dix, Flanders (1934)
Otto Dix, Flanders (1934)