“I had the feeling that there was a dimension of reality that had not been dealt with in art: the dimension of ugliness.”
German artist Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix is best known for paintings and prints filled with anguished, exploited human figures representing the turmoil of his time. He lived during the most tumultuous period of modern German history, from World War I through World War II and the division of Germany after its defeat. This fed his deep-rooted interest in dark social contexts and the human types that emerge from them. As he remarked, “You have to see man in an unbridled state in order to know something about him.”
A committed and sought-after portraitist at a time when photography had largely replaced painted portraits, Dix depicted fellow artists and other members of Germany’s cultural bohemia, as well as various professionals and patrons of the arts. His portraits include Dr. Mayer-Hermann, in which he pictured a renowned throat specialist in a manner that seems to run counter to the conventional portrayal of doctors as healers. With its frontality, large scale, sparse setting, and array of frightening, circular instruments—the shapes of which echo the doctor's own round body and face—the artist creates a seemingly satirical effect.
Much of Dix’s work associated with German Expressionism was informed by his four years of frontline service in World War I as an artillery gunner. He witnessed casualties, destruction, and senseless violence, and translated these experiences into visual expressions of despondency in his paintings and prints. Made 10 years after the conflict began, The War (Der Krieg), a cycle of 50 etchings, aquatints, and drypoints, unflinchingly shows the horrors of trench warfare and the aftermath of battle, featuring dead, dying, and shell-shocked soldiers, bombed-out landscapes, and graves.
In his figurative work after World War I, Dix veered toward social satire, developing a grotesque, exaggerated aesthetic associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, whose artists sought to unsentimentally portray the social and political realities of the Weimar Republic. In Die Skatspieler (Skat Players), he depicts three World War I veterans with grossly distorted features, emphasizing their war-damaged bodies by foregrounding their amputated and prosthetic limbs and their deformed faces, framed by newspapers and playing cards. These disfigured veterans appear as composites of human flesh and artificial body parts, showing the devastating toll of war. In addition to wounded veterans, Dix also focused on gaudily dressed ladies of the night, stating, “I had the feeling that there was a dimension of reality that had not been dealt with in art: the dimension of ugliness.”
Heidi Hirschl Orley, Curatorial Expansion Project Manager, 2018