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Last updated: 6/23/2019
Home / Gallery Tour 1 / Specials / Gallery Tour 2 / Artists

Otto Dix (German, 1891-1969): Self-Portrait / Portraits

Dix: St. Matthew I / Dix: St. Matthew II / Dix: St. Matthew III / Dix: Portraits

German Expressionism: Survey I / Survey II / Survey III

"Käthe Kollwitz and German Expressionism" featured over fifty works by Käthe Kollwitz plus additional works by Josef Albers,
Ernst Barlach, Rudolf Bauer, Max Beckmann, Peter Behrens, Heinrich Campendonck, Marc Chagall, Lovis Corinth, Otto Dix,
Lyonel Feininger, Conrad Felixmuller, Hans Fronius, Alfons Graber, Otto Greiner, Georg Grosz, Erich Heckel, Hannah Hoch,
Karl Hofer, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Ludwig Meidner, Edvard Munch,
Gabrielle Munter, Heinrich Nauen, Emile Nolde, Max Pechstein, Hilla von Rebay, Georges Rouault, Rudolf Schlichter,
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Siegfried Schott, Georg Tappert, Wilhelm Wagner, and others.

German Expressionist Drawings

The Russians: Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, Goncharova, Larionov, and Malevich
Otto Dix was born in Untermhaus, near the city of Gera. The eldest son of an iron foundry worker, like Kollwitz he was exposed to art from an early age; his mother had written poetry in her youth, and he had a cousin who was a painter. In 1910, he entered the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts and supported himself as a portrait painter. As Reinheld Heller observes in his article on Dix in The Grove Dictionary of Art (9: 41-43), Dix combined "a verisitic style derived from Nothern Renaissance prototypes. . . . [with a] randomly colored Expressionism" (9: 41), using thin glazes of oil paint over a tempera underpainting. When the First World War began, Dix volunteered for the German Army and was assigned to a field artillery regiment. By the fall of 1915 he was a non-commissioned officer of a machine-gun unit in the Western front and took part of the Battle of the Somme. He was seriously wounded several times. In 1917, his unit was transferred to the Eastern front until the end of hostilities with Russia. Back in the western front, he fought in the German Spring offensive. He earned the Iron Cross (second class) and reached the rank of vice-sergeant-major. Dix was profoundly affected by the sights of the war, and would later describe a recurring nightmare in which he crawled through destroyed houses. For Dix, "War was something so animal like: hunger, lice, slime, these crazy sounds . . . War was something horrible, but nonethless 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" (9: 41). He represented his traumatic experiences in many subsequent works, including one of his graphic masterpieces, a portfolio of fifty etchings called Der Krieg / The War, published in 1924.

At the end of 1918 Dix returned to Gera, but the next year he moved to Dresden, where he studied at the Akademie der Bildende Künste. In 1919 he became a founder of the Dresdener Sezession Gruppe, which Heller describes as "a group of radical Expressionist and Dada artists and writers." In 1920 he met George Grosz and, influenced by Dada, began incorporating collage elements into his works, some of which he exhibited in the first Dada Fair in Berlin. He also participated in the German Expressionists exhibition in Darmstadt that year; in 1924 he joined the Berlin Secession. His 1923 painting The Trench, which depicted dismembered and decomposed bodies of soldiers after a battle caused such a furor that the Wallraf-Richartz Museum hid the painting behind a curtain. In 1925 the then-mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer (later to become Chancellor of Germany from 1949-1963), cancelled the purchase of the painting and forced the director of the museum to resign. 

By the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) exhibition in Mannheim in 1925, which featured works by George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Karl Hubbuch, Rudolf Schlichter, Georg Scholz and many others, Dix was recognized as one of its leading painters: five of his paintings were included and, according to Frances Carey and Antony Griffiths, The Print in Germany 1880-1933: The Age of Expressionism (London: British Museum, 1984), Dix emerged as the dominant personality, among figures like Grosz, Schlichter, and Hubbuch (p. 183). Dix's work, like that of Grosz, was extremely critical of contemporary German society and often dwelled on the act of Lustmord, or sexual murder. He drew attention to the bleaker side of life, unsparingly depicting prostitution, violence, old age and death. His depictions of the legless and disfigured veterans that were a common sight on Berlin's streets in the 1920s clearly illustrate their forgotten status, a fate echoed in the drawings, paintings, and prints of many French and German artists, including Jean-Louis Forain and Heinrich Campendonck. Linda McGreevy has argued that the personal experiences of the artists who survived the war years almost compelled them to find styles that would permit them to express their struggles with their memories: "Propelled by memories of events so shattering . . . an imagery emerged not 'in tranquility,' as described by Wordsworth [in his 1798 Preface to The Lryical Ballads], but in a heated re-creation of the war's immediacy," and invited the invention of "a documentary style, its heightened realism fused with the emotional charge generated by prewar Expressionism" (p. 3).

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Dix was dismissed from his teaching position at the Düsseldorf Akademie and in 1934 he was forbidden to exhibit his work publiscly. In 1937, 260 of his works were confiscated; some were included in the infamous Entartete Kunst / Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich and two of his works were publicly burnt in 1939 for attempting "to undermine the German people's attempt to defend itself." In 1937, Dix moved to Hemmenhofen on Lake Constance where he painted The Seven Deadly Sins, depicting Hitler as Envy. Dix was forced to join the Nazi-controlled Imperial chamber of Fine Arts in order to be able to work as an artist at all and had to promise to paint only landscapes. In 1939 he was arrested on a charge of being involved in a plot against Hitler (see Georg Elser) but was later released. During World War II Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm. He was captured by French troops at the end of the war and released in February 1946. Dix eventually returned to Dresden.

After the war most of his paintings were religious allegories or depictions of post-war suffering. His major works as a printmaker mirror the two parts of his career. The etchings of Der Krieg (1924), published in five portfolios of 10 prints each, stand with Goya's Disasters of War and the works of the "Guerre / War" section of Rouault's Miserere, as one of the supreme presentations of the horrors and suffering of war as seen by eye witnesses unable to shake the memories from their mind's eye; his 33 original lithographs for Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, a deluxe edition of the Gospel According to St. Matthew published in 1960, can be compared with Dürer's Small Woodcut Passion and Rouault's Miserere taken as a whole. Using the Gospel story as a model for interpreting events, they contextualize the present day's horrors against the meaning provided by the whole of the story of which they are a part. While they lack the searing intensity of the etchings for Der Krieg, they provide a deeply moving testament to the biblical story of how a state or a church can turn upon itself and destroy those who embody its best hopes.

Bibliography: Eva Karcher, Otto Dix 1891-1969: His Life and Works (Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1988; Florian Karsch, Otto Dix: Das graphische Werk (Hannover: Fackelträger-Verlag Schmidt-Kuster, 1970); Fritz Loffler, Otto Dix: Graphik aus fünf Jarhzehnten (Leipzig: Insel-Verlag, 1978); Fritz Loffler, Otto Dix: Life and Work Trans R. J. Hollingdale (NY: Holmes & Meier, 1982); Linda F. McGreevy, Bitter Witness: Otto Dix and the Great War (NY: Peter Lang, 2001); Reiner E. Moritz, Otto Dix: The Painter is the Eyes of the World (Poorhouse Productions, 1989); Uwe M. Schneede, Otto Dix: Zeichnungen, Aqarelle, Grafiken, Kartons (Hamburg: Kunstverein in Hamburg, 1977)
Kinderbildnis / Nelly mit Spitzenkragen (Karsch 120 II/II). Original lithograph, 1924. Published in 1924 in the Jahrbuch fur jungen Kunst: 100 signed impressions plus an edition signed in the stone and dated '24, size unknown, from which our impression comes. The subject is Dix's daughter Nelly, who was frequently the subject of her father's drawings, lithographs, and paintings. Image size: 276x198mm. Price: $1500.
Selbstbildness / Self Portrait (Karsch 272). Original woodcut, 1960. 30 hand-printed impressions in 1960, 50 signed impressions plus 450 unsigned impressions, all on Japon paper, for a 1961 catalogue, 550 unsigned impressions with "Otto Dix" printed on the verso (1961), plus 3000 impressions (of which ours is one) published in 50 Jahre Galerie Nirendorf (1970). Image size: 210x143mm. Price: $750.
Frauenkopf im Profil / Woman's head in profile (Karsch 311). Original lithograph, 1966. 60 hand-pulled impressions on Japon paper plus 2000 impressions on wove paper for Kunstblätter 10/11 (1966). Image size: 220x158mm. Price: $750.
Mädchenkopf (en face) / Young woman's head in profile (Karsch 312). Original lithograph, 1966. 60 hand-pulled impressions on Japon paper plus 2000 impressions on wove paper for Kunstblätter 10/11 (1966). Image size: 220x158mm. Price: $750.

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