Otto Dix: Objective Painter or Accidental Prophet?

Darius Magada-Ward

Otto Dix, How I Looked as a Soldier,1924

Few artists have captured the sheer violence, absurdity, and chaos of the phenomenon of war better than Otto Dix in Der Krieg (1924), his series of etchings visualizing his experience of World War I. This series is unique in terms of just how alien and unrecognizable both the earth and humanity become on the battleground. In his etchings, living faces become hollow as if they have lost their human spark, flares light up the night sky like earth-bound stars that display a moon-like cratered-out landscape, while soldiers’ corpses are scattered about as if they’re growing from the blasted ground. Upon first examination, Dix’s work seems to be a clear condemnation of war and the folly of arbitrary violence at the hands of nationalistic impulses. These artworks additionally provide an examination of the consequences of that Great War, and how a country and people greatly wounded by the postwar shame of defeat and economic collapse became a breeding ground for fascist ideologies. Some of the markers of incipient fascism seen in Dix’s work of the 20s and 30s are similar to the behavior found in ultra-right groups in the United States today. His work in comparison to our contemporary situation in the United States begs the question: was Dix a documentarian or an accidental prophet? The aim of this essay is to attempt a provisional answer to this vital question.
Let us examine one of Dix’s numerous self-portraits, the 1924 self-portrait. In the drawing How I looked as a Soldier, Dix depicts himself in the role of hardened masculine hero to a tee. He stares toward the viewer with a furrowed brow and piercing gaze. The stubble on his face and the wear and tear in his uniform suggest he has been fully entrenched in combat as he clutches a massive machine gun. All of these visual cues help the portrayal of him as an efficient killer for the German homeland. Another self-portrait, the 1915 painting Self-portrait as Mars places the artist as the eternal God of War, standing resolutely as monstrous forces of energy wreak death and havoc around him. His pose reminds us of a warrior from antiquity; there is something deeply elemental about this painting, as horses burn and buildings crumble while the stars align to repeat life’s cycle of rebirth and destruction.
Dix was heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Nietzschean mythology, and he was part of a body politic that considered entering into World War I to be a divine blessing that would reshape the arc of history. Themes of life’s inherent tension between and the will to power are recognizable in all of his works. Dix was both horrified and fascinated by his experience as a soldier: “There was an almost addictive quality to the hyper-sensory input of war” (Karcher).
What is so interesting about Dix’s works from this period is that they are clearly a condemnation of war to some extent, yet still Dix seems to be valorizing the things that led to war to begin with. The artworks, showing war in all of its ugliness, still contain a Germanic romanticism that is reminiscent of old masters such as Caspar David Friedrich. His etchings allude to the post-war shame of the era, but he still romanticizes the heroism of the German soldier as the ultimate morally superior being, the man of iron-will, impervious to weakness and “prepared to meet any eventuality” (Fox). This identity, coupled with the shame of global defeat and the rise of many rogue paramilitary organizations, led to a wide belief in the degeneracy and deterioration of cultural and moral norms.
Rogue paramilitary organizations trying to thwart and undermine the efforts of the state, a belief in the deterioration of conservative social mores and ethics: the parallels to our reactionary political climate today are ominously similar. The mythologizing of the heroic persona seems to fit directly into our own nation’s extreme right-wing rhetoric. Swaths of men, young and old and heavily armed, occupy our country’s capitals and public grounds in attempts to bully and intimidate. The allusions and misinterpretations of Nietzschean mythologies, whom white supremacists such as Richard Spencer have labeled as their inspiration of ‘spiritual awakening’ are direct legacies of pre-World War II fascist behaviors. Make America Great Again, the slogan itself, inciting the myth of a once Great America – “simultaneously magnifies the young reactionary’s shame while being called to action” (Illing).
In works like The Skat Players and Prager Strasse, Dix portrays some of the causes of this growing national resentment. The card players, cast aside and presumably unemployable in a newly destroyed German economy, sit and come to terms with what has become of their lives. The prosthetic limbs and robotically figured bodies notify us of the war’s unique place as the first truly industrialized war. These men can’t assimilate back into society, they have nothing better to do, so they play cards. Their wounds and bodily sacrifices in an ultimately purposeless war have left them without a sense of ultimate purpose.
In Prager Strasse, deformed and wounded veterans try to peddle cash on the side of a fashionable street. A woman in a pink dress rushes by and pays them no mind. Their mangled bodies are magnified by the shop selling fake human extremities behind them. One of the men carries a brochure entitled Jews Out! The implications are clear, and the seeds of nationalism have begun to grow out of the soil of wide-scale economic hopelessness and disillusionment. How similar is this to our own world? Purposelessness and economic loss inevitably lead to those affected searching for someone on whom to place the blame. The fears associated with these conditions are then exploited through recruitment strategies for far-right extremists that are based around the notion that “white men are losing power in an ever-changing, multicultural landscape” (CTED). These men, the “losers of modernization,” (Chatzoudis) seek to destroy the other, the ones to blame. Who these ‘others’ are is irrelevant; during the pre-WWII era it was predominately Jews, today it is largely defined as a strange mixture of anti-Semitic, racist, and violently misogynistic sentiments. “The desire to kill by right-wing extremists around the world is driven by inferior bodily states: the fragmented body’s fear of disaster, of being devoured by the realities that surround it” (Chatzoudis).

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait as Mars, 1915

The year is 1923. A crowd of demonstrators, poor, sick, and feeble, march in protest. A mustached man carries a picket sign exclaiming their reason for grievances, We Want Bread! Inside a nearby cafe a group of elegantly dressed patrons sip champagne with grotesque looks on their faces. The men of the cafe carry a look of amusement at the sight of the demonstrators. The fat cat of the group puffs a cigar; nearby his Swastika-donned comrade holds his bubbly flute while the third man gazes at our crowd with a contemptuous grin. The women, smartly dressed in the latest fashions of the era, carry somber faces. They do not interact with the crowd nor their company. They exist to serve their duties as subservient to their husbands.
Almost a hundred years later, patrons drink beer outside of one of their favorite New York haunts. They carry a look of exasperation and embarrassment as directly behind them march a wave of protestors, one carrying the pan African flag, unifying in support of reform of systemic American police brutality. In this photograph these patrons may not be the sole beneficiaries of an oppressive system, but they perfectly represent that role here. They have taken it upon themselves to deliberately ignore the current realities of our sociopolitical climate. They fail to address a world and a nation that is facing joblessness, inequality, death, and social unrest on a massive scale in the midst of a global pandemic.
Here you have a remarkably similar image repeated almost exactly one hundred years apart, history literally repeating itself. The descriptions posted of these images, one from Otto Dix’s 1923 drawing We Want Bread! and a now viral Twitter photograph are disturbingly alike in their content. Did he ever expect that history would indeed begin to repeat itself nearly a century later in such ways? Dix’s idiosyncratic account is most certainly an amalgamation of then current events imagined into one composition, while the photograph is at this point simply recorded history. In both, the fight for basic human rights is on display. It is important to note that the beer drinking women in the photograph do not exist, and are not represented, as subservient to the men of the image and thus the parallels between the two images are not entirely alike.
Dix’s masterful 1927 triptych Metropolis, takes a different approach and draws attention on the growing resentment toward Berlin’s heady cultural elite. In the center panel, the rich and beautiful dance and mingle in Berlin’s decadent nightlife, their attention focused towards an uproarious brass band. The bourgeoisie of the center panel are flanked on the left and right by the consequences of their rampant consumption. In the left panel the crutches of a wounded veteran trample a man lying in the street, a dog barks at him as prostitutes look on contemptuously. In the right panel more high-class prostitutes dressed in furs walk carelessly past another crippled war victim. The triptych evokes the same resentment found in the contemporary disdain for American billionaires and today’s growing economic inequality gap.
Dix’s portrayal of women throughout nearly the entirety of his oeuvre lends support to the understanding of the young (potentially extremist) male’s psyche of the Weimar Republic era. Dix mostly painted women in roles subservient to men, and oftentimes in the role of prostitution. In some of his paintings, each woman’s individual characteristics has little importance – they are prostitutes through this lens, a commodity to be taken, owned, or bought. Dix’s 1923 Sailor and Girl perfectly captures this idea, as a young sailor salaciously imposes himself onto a young nude woman in a brothel. His expression juxtaposed with her wariness and hesitance suggests “a transfer of military violence into brutal sexual aggression” (MoMA). The work also evokes the depravity of the age and strengthens this obsession with social and moral decay.
Consider Dix’s famous 1926 Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden. The astute and prolific woman of letters wrote for a multitude of publications across Europe. She is painted as pale and gaunt, and in the fascist’s eyes as a symbol that represents the chaos and fall of the glory of the Weimar Republic. Her long spidery hands dominate the composition, as one tugs on her fashionable dress and the other clutches a lit cigarette. On the table near her rests an array of her vices – a supply of tobacco and a half-drunk cocktail. The painting is at once both grotesque and cosmopolitan in its depiction of von Harden. She is painted as the modern woman, disobeying the conventions of old.

Otto Dix, The Skat Players, 1920

It also seems appropriate to consider the effects that the sexual liberation of the 1920s seen world-wide must have had on these proto-fascists. Berlin’s lively social scene and the redefining of womanhood through the flappers surely must have had some damaging psychological effect, as what these men were ultimately most fearful of is the autonomy of the independent woman. This liberation for the then modern woman, and the fear and repudiation of this liberation, seems in many ways similar to today’s world and the inverse responses cited from far-right groups. The Proud Boys, the ‘it’ extremist group of the moment, describe themselves as “champions of western chauvinism.” They oppose women’s liberation through condemnation of changed sexual and economic mores involving inter-racial relationships and sexual freedom, and advocate for stay-at-home roles for women spouses. The erosion and decay of longstanding feminine sexual mores is listed as one of the primary reasons for the Proud Boys’ unification. In their eyes, women are beginning to overtake men’s rightful place in roles of high-paying jobs and higher education. The sexually liberated, economically independent woman has no need for these men, the ‘losers of modernity.’ This metaphorical emasculation enrages the extremist, calling him into action and uniting under the guise of some higher nationalistic calling – very similar to the fascist phenomena seen in the age of the Weimar Republic.
Dix is still a man of his time and place, given his unreflective embrace of the gender ideology of his time. It would be remiss to analyze his work without calling to attention his problematic portrayal of women and the female body. This is the caveat; he was prescient in his response and observation of his views regarding everything. But his uncritical embrace of these gender roles is unfortunate. Dix is not celebrating or promoting these roles, it is more as if they’re simply glossed over and do not receive their critical due.
Still, pay attention to him, he has something to say that resonates a hundred years later. These paintings offer a glimpse into the mechanisms that led to the rise of Nazism and fascist behaviors – and, perhaps potentially, an examination of why something similar may be happening to us now.

You may contact the author at: DMAGADAW@depaul.edu

Volume 35 no 3 January – February 2021

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