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War, Art, and Nazis: Otto Dix’s Story

If you ask me who my favorite artist is, the standard answer is that I don’t know because there are so many good artists. But if I had to get it down to a single individual, it would have to be Otto Dix. Otto Dix is certainly not as well known to laypeople as is Michelangelo, or Picasso, or Banksy, but he was one of the leading artists in Germany between the World Wars. And today marks his 124th birthday.

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Otto Dix was prominent in a German style known as Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. He enlisted in the army during the First World War, being put in charge of a machine-gun unit at the Battle of the Somme. So, his day would mostly consist of slaughtering British soldiers on the Western Front. He traveled all over Europe, from the Somme, to the Eastern Front, to Flanders. He was wounded in the neck and later discharged. After the war he was chronically plagued by nightmares. As a form of therapy, he decided to delve into etching, creating a series of works known as Der Krieg (The War) in 1924. Among the fifty etchings is one of Dix’s most recognizable works: Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas.

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The reason why I like Dix, a reason others may share, is because he was one of the only German artists who showed how the First World War looked in the eyes of a German soldier. British and American art shows the triumphant generals, the glorious dead, the humiliation of the defeated Austro-Hungarians and Germans. Post-war Germany, however, was populated by artists who showed the grim horror, the bones of fallen friends and the dark, muddy trenches. Otto Dix was at the forefront of showing the realities of the German experience of the First World War. But among his most famous paintings is a triptych, a three-panelled painting, known as Metropolis. Dix not only showed the barbarity of the German trenches, but he also showed the results of the war at home.

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He shows the glamour and the lifestyle of post-war Germany, filled with jazz and swing and dancing, while prostitutes and homeless, disfigured veterans mingle amongst each other, for they had been pushed off to the margins of German society like a dirty secret being shoved under the rug. He and only a few colleagues were showing the reality of 1920s Germany, and how did Germany repay him? They though his work was disgusting. One of his paintings was shown at a museum in Cologne, and the museum director had to resign because of the disgrace. When the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, they clamped down on artists that they declared to be ‘degenerate’. As a result, Dix put Hitler’s likeness on the figure of Envy in The Seven Deadly Sins. Many of Dix’s works were displayed at the Entartete Kunst exhibit on degenerate art, and afterwards the works were burned. He was then accused of planning to assassinate Hitler by planting a bomb in a Munich beer hall that the Führer was visiting (an actual assassination attempt by an carpenter named Johann Elser).

It was only after the Second World War that Dix was recognized by both East and West Germany for his contribution to German culture during the 1920s and 1930s. He was promptly given the National Prize by East Germany in 1950, and the Grand Merit Cross by West Germany in 1959. He also received a plethora of art prizes throughout Germany and Austria. He died in 1969, and for his 100th birthday in 1991 one of his self-portraits was put on a stamp. But recently, Munich resident Cornelius Gurlitt was found to have about 1500 paintings in his small apartment, passed down from his father who was a collector of degenerate art during the Nazi regime. Among the paintings were works by Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and, of course, Otto Dix. And so because of the news coverage of the newfound Nazi stash, people can now appreciate some of Dix’s unknown work and remember the truth about the First World War that has survived because of him. So I wish him a happy birthday, and thank you for always telling the truth.

About Nathan Scheer

Nathan Scheer is contributor to The Artoholic and a webmaster for TheArtExperts.org, who is currently studying History and International Studies at Elon University in North Carolina. He has also worked for Rehs Galleries, Inc. and Rehs Contemporary Galleries, Inc., which specialize in 19th and 20th Century European paintings and contemporary academic paintings, respectively, as well as Christie's Rockefeller Center.

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