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Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

German painter, printmaker and watercolourist. His initial training (1905–14) in Gera and Dresden was as a painter of wall decorations, but he taught himself the techniques of easel painting from 1909 and began concentrating on portraits and landscapes in a veristic style derived from northern Renaissance prototypes. After seeing exhibitions of paintings by Vincent van Gogh (Dresden, 1912) and by the Futurists (1913), he quickly fused these influences into a randomly coloured Expressionism. Volunteering as a machine-gunner during World War I, he served in the German army (1914–18), making innumerable sketches of war scenes, using alternately a realistic and a Cubo-Futurist style. The experience of war, moreover, became a dominant motif of his work until the 1930s. He later commented: ‘War is something so animal-like: hunger, lice, slime, these crazy sounds … War was something horrible, but nonetheless something powerful … Under no circumstances could I miss it! It is necessary to see people in this unchained condition in order to know something about man’ (Kinkel, 1961; repr. in 1985 exh. cat., p. 280).

After the war (1919) Dix became a student at the Dresden Akademie der Bildenden Künste (now Hochschule für Bildende Künste) and became a founder-member of the Dresdner Sezession Gruppe 1919, a group of radical Expressionist and Dada artists and writers. In erotic allegories, gruesome scenes of war and revolution, and depictions of legless, drastically disfigured war cripples—works exhibited in Berlin at the 1. Internationalen Dada-Messe in 1920—he employed a mixed-media technique that fused painting and collage using found objects. In his printmaking he echoed the motifs of his paintings, resulting in five portfolios of engravings and one of woodcuts by 1922.

In 1920 Dix resumed working in a highly veristic fashion, drawing nudes at the Akademie and painting portraits of friends and working-class models. These realist works also included socially critical motifs; a large portrait of Parents I (1921; Basle, Ksthalle); scenes of brothels; and a massive depiction of The Trench (1921–3; destr., see Löffler, 1982, pls. 62–3), filled with distended and deformed corpses. ‘I told myself’, he later commented, ‘that life is not colourful at all. It is much darker, quieter in its tonality, much simpler. I wanted to depict things as they really are’ (Wetzel, 1965; repr. in 1985 exh. cat., pp.288–9). Critical and commercial success followed Dix’s shift to a revised form of realism. In 1923 he had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie I. B. Neumann in Berlin. At the exhibition of 1925 in Mannheim that first identified the objective art of Neue sachlichkeit as a new movement, Dix was presented as one of its leading painters, although his work was also coming under increasing attack as it gained wider recognition.

The Trench, purchased in 1923 for the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, became a focus of nationalist attack for its perceived anti-military stance, with the result that the museum returned the painting. Controversy also ensued when Dix was accused of pornography after exhibiting Girl before Mirror (1922; destr., see Löffler, 1981, pls. 1922–38), of an aged prostitute wearing a corset that left her genitalia exposed as she gazed into a mirror. Dix was acquitted, but attacks from right-wing political organizations continued to link him and other Neue Sachlichkeit artists with an alleged widespread left-wing plot to undermine German morality and mores. Dix’s membership in the 1920s of such radical artists’ organizations as Junge Rheinland and Berlin’s Rote Gruppe, and his association with other left-wing groups and causes, continued to encourage the politicization of his work’s reception. For example, The Trench travelled throughout Germany under sponsorship of the pacifist ‘Nie wieder Krieg!’ organization, which also patronized his portfolio of 50 engravings and etchings, War (1924; e.g. London, BM), based on his wartime sketches and strongly reminiscent of Goya.

After losing his rights to a studio at the Dresden Akademie in 1922, Dix moved to Düsseldorf, married Martha Koch, established links with the innovative Galerie Ey and changed the subject-matter of his work to less overtly political themes. War ceased to be a constant concern, and an extensive series of watercolours explored frequently violent or morbid erotic motifs. In paintings in which he used a technique of mixed oil and tempera—believed to be of northern Renaissance origin—portraits were dominant since Dix became favoured as a portrait painter of Germany’s literary and theatrical bohemia and its notable patrons. Supported by the Galerie Nierendorf, Dix moved to Berlin in 1925 to participate more directly in the city’s art scene, and to organize a series of collective exhibitions in Berlin, Munich and Dresden.

In late 1926 Dix was appointed to a professorship at the Dresden Akademie: it marked the high point of his success. Soon after he began one of his most ambitious works, his first triptych, Metropolis (1927–8; Stuttgart, Gal. Stadt): in this, the motif, favoured earlier, of begging war cripples is contrasted with sexual display, decadent sensual abandon and the apathy of the wealthy. With Metropolis Dix resumed a tactic of overt social criticism in his large public paintings. The theme of war also returned in a monumental commentary on the tenth anniversary of the end of World War I, again using the medieval triptych format with its religious associations, in War (1928–32; Dresden, Gemäldegal. Neue Meister); its central panel is an extended reprise of The Trench, flanked by wings depicting German soldiers marching in anonymous unity into battle, then emerging wounded, individualized and demoralized from it; on the predella are three corpses in tattered uniforms. Intending that it be displayed in a modern city in a bunker-like crypt, Dix identified War as ‘the altarpiece as a site of silence and peace, surrounded by the bustle of human life outside, as site of meditation and as unidealized memorial of the nameless martyr–soldier’ (interview, 1964; cited by Schmidt, 1981, p. 262).

While continuing to paint portraits and nudes, Dix injected an increasingly pessimistic and allegorical content into his work during the early 1930s. Nudes emerged as witches or personifications of melancholy. Named as a member of the Preussische Akademie der Künste in 1931, Dix was relieved of all honours and his teaching position immediately after the Nazi election victories of 1933, on the grounds that his paintings included morally offensive works that were ‘likely to adversely affect the military will of the German people’. In allegorical paintings using traditional Christian motifs (e.g. the Triumph of Death, 1934; Stuttgart, Gal. Stadt; and the Temptation of St Anthony, 1936–7; Friedrichshafen, Städt. Bodensee-Mus.), Dix continued to provide a critical commentary on the character and consequences of Nazism. The large painting Flanders (2.0×2.5 m, 1934–6; Berlin, Alte N.G.) and Lot and his Daughters (1939; priv. col., on loan to Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Mus.), with a bombed, burning Dresden in the background, once more reiterated the slaughter of World War I as a pessimistic warning for the future. Meanwhile he was forbidden to exhibit, and his work was confiscated from German museums to feature in various exhibitions of entartete Kunst (including the most infamous one in Munich, 1937). He moved from Dresden to seek seclusion, first in 1934 at Schloss Randegg near Singen, then in 1936 in the small town of Hemmenhofen on Lake Constance. Participating in the ‘inner emigration’ of numerous German artists and intellectuals, supported by a small number of patrons, Dix employed a polemically significant Old Master technique, such as was also often advocated for Nazi art, emulating German Renaissance painters. He also changed his art’s most frequent content to the relatively neutral one of landscape, but landscape markedly bereft of human presence and in rejection of contemporary events.

Christian and biblical themes also became increasingly prevalent as Dix changed his mode of painting once more during the first years of World War II, returning to a heavily impastoed alla prima manner, but in dull colours, without the sensuality of his early oils. Drafted into the German territorial army in 1945, Dix was captured by French troops, served as prisoner of war at Colmar and then was allowed to return to Hemmenhofen. Continuing to evolve his new technique, he maintained an interest in portraits and self-portraits, Christian motifs, especially the Passion, and landscapes, and resumed printmaking. In politically divided Germany, he was unusual in his ability to negotiate between the West and East German regimes, making annual visits to Dresden, appointed to the academies of both West and East Berlin, and the recipient of major awards in both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic.

Reinhold Heller
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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