In paintings, drawings, and prints, Otto Dix portrayed the corruption and social apathy of German society after World War I with harsh, critical realism. Completing some three hundred prints during his lifetime, he experimented extensively with etching, lithography, and woodcut, making his most significant printed work during the early 1920s in response to the horror of the war and its aftermath.
In 1909 Dix moved to Dresden to study art. At the onset of World War I he volunteered to serve as a machine gunner and suffered serious wounds in front-line advances through Belgium and France. When he returned to Dresden to resume his studies, Dix joined a group of young radical Expressionists and also had contact with Dadaists, whose anarchism encouraged his growing nihilism. Directing a critical eye toward German society, Dix became preoccupied with subjects like veterans and urban decay, as well as prostitution and the destructive power of sex. In Syphilitic, evil temptation literally fills a man's head, as he suffers from the madness brought on by this disease.
In the early 1920s, Dix was encouraged by art dealer Karl Nierendorf to make prints for broad distribution. He turned to illustrating the devastation of the trench warfare he had experienced, creating an epic series of fifty intaglios that have been compared to Goya's The Disasters of War. The imagery in this series differs radically from the 1916–18 Futurist-influenced sketches he had made at the front, when, deeply interested in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, he enthusiastically embraced war as an inevitable part of life. In these later images, Dix portrays the destructive effects of war, including rotting corpses and bombed cities and landscapes, as well as its dehumanizing impact. In Storm Troops Advance under Gas Attack, soldiers are shown as menacing ghouls whose depravity is emphasized by terrifying gas masks.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Harper Montgomery, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 92.
Appearing ten years after the conflict began, Otto Dix's monumental portfolio Der Krieg (The war) neither glorifies World War I nor heroizes its soldiers but shows, in fifty unrelentingly graphic images, the horrible realities experienced by someone who was there. Dix, an artillery gunner in the trenches at the Somme and on the Eastern Front, focused on the aftermath of battle: dead, dying, and shell-shocked soldiers, bombed-out landscapes, and graves.
Dix manipulated the etching and aquatint mediums to heighten the emotional and realistic effects of his meticulously rendered images of horror. He stopped out ghastly white bones and strips of no man's land, leaving brilliant white patches; multiple acid baths ate away at the images, mimicking decaying flesh.
Titles detailing precise places and dates confer an illusion of documentary authenticity. Dix did not transcribe his wartime sketchbooks; these nightmarish scenes are based on his memories of battle, on photographs (including many that had been censored during wartime), and on catacombs. For Dix, these prints were like an exorcism. Dix's publisher, Karl Nierendorf in Berlin, circulated the portfolio throughout Germany with a pacifist organization, Never Again War, though Dix himself doubted that his prints could have any bearing on future wars. Despite the intensive publicity, Nierendorf sold only one complete portfolio from the edition of seventy.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.