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DER KRIEG by OTTO DIX…

art and life…

art about war…

by MARK HENSHAW 

Otto Dix was born in 1891 in Untermhaus, Thuringia, the son of an ironworker. He initially trained in Gera and at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts as a painter of wall decorations and later taught himself how to paint on canvas. He volunteered as a machine-gunner during World War I and in the autumn of 1915 he was sent to the Western Front. He was at the Somme during the major allied offensive of 1916.

After the war he studied at the academies of Dresden and Dusseldorf. Together with George Grosz, he was one of the leading exponents of the artistic movement Die Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity], a form of social realist art which unsentimentally examined the decadence and underlying social inequality of post-war German society. With the rise of the National Socialists in 1933, Dix was dismissed from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy. He moved south to Lake Constance and was only allowed to continue practising as an artist after he agreed to relinquish overtly political subject matter in favour of landscape painting. Dix was conscripted into the army during World War II and in 1945 was captured and put into a prisoner of war camp. He returned to Dresden after the war where his paintings became more religiously reflective of his war-time experiences. He died in 1969.

Der Krieg [War] 1924 arose out of Dix’s own experiences of the horrors of war. As outlined above, he had volunteered for service in the army and fought as a machine-gunner on the Western Front. He was wounded a number of times, once almost fatally. War profoundly affected him as an individual and as an artist, and he took every opportunity, both during his active service and afterwards, to document his experiences. These experiences would become the subject matter of many of his later paintings and are central to the Der Krieg cycle.

Der Krieg itself, as a cycle of prints (51 in total), is consciously modelled on Goya’s [1746–1828] equally famous and equally devastating Los Desastres de la Guerra [The disasters of war]. Los Desastres detailed Goya’s own account of the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish War of Independence from 1808 to 1814. Goya’s cycle of 82 etchings, which he worked on for a decade after the Spanish War of Independence were not, however, published until 1863, long after his death.

Like Los Desastres, Der Krieg uses a variety of etching techniques and does so with an equally astonishing facility. Similarly, it exploits the cumulative possibilities of a long sequence of images and mirrors Goya’s unflinching, stark realism in terms of its fundamental presentation. GH Hamilton describes Dix’s cycle as ‘perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art… It was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist, not even by [George] Grosz…’  It has become a commonplace to see this cycle as an admonition against the barbarity of war. And there is no doubt that as a human document it is a powerful cautionary work. At a psychological level, however, its truth goes deeper than this. Dix was both horrified and fascinated by the experience of war.

In 1963, explaining why he volunteered for the army in the First World War he had this to say:

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 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 of life for myself…

In the same interview, he also had this to say:

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…

This nightmarish, hallucinatory quality pervades all of the Der Krieg images. Paradoxically, there is also a quality of sensuousness, an almost perverse delight in the rendering of horrific detail, which indicates that there was perhaps, in Dix’s case, an almost addictive quality to the hyper-sensory input of war. In terms of the general corpus of Dix’s work, Der Krieg occupies a central place amongst the large number of paintings and works-on-paper devoted to the theme of war. The work is astonishingly powerful and, as stated above, it remains one of the most powerful indictments of war ever conceived. It is universally regarded as one of the great masterpieces of twentieth century. Dix’s oeuvre as a whole, and Der Krieg in particular, was hugely influential on a number of other twentieth century artist such as Ben Shahn, Pablo Picasso and Robert Motherwell.

The etchings were printed by Kupferdruckerei O. Felsing in Charlottenburg on BSB Maschinen Butten and Kupferdruck paper under Dix’s supervision. The portfolio was published by Karl Nierendorf, Berlin, as five separate folios each of 10 prints in an edition of 70 in 1924. The edition the National Gallery of Australia has acquired is numbered 58/70. The portfolio also includes the impression of Soldat und Nonne [Soldier and nun], depicting the rape of a nun by a soldier, which was suppressed in the published version of the suite.

Otto Dix is one of the greatest artists of the first half of the 20th century and his visual legacy, including his Der Krieg cycle, with its still relevant contemporary echoes, is one of the most powerful documents of man’s inhumanity to man that we have available to us today. Its acquisition represents a major coup for the Gallery having been on the Department of International Prints desiderata list for years.

(NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA)

examples of Der Krieg can be see on display through 12.31.11 @ The NY Public Library, NYC

all images Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, The Poynton Bequest 2003 © Otto Dix, Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

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