A mirror of social reality

Published : Jan 10, 1998 00:00 IST

German artist Otto Dix's etchings reflect the horrors of war and the anguish of human degradation.

OTTO DIX is one of those 20th century artists, appraising whose work presents a degree of difficulty. The usual accounts of how Modernism developed do not suffice in the case of this artist, who seemed to begin as an Expressionist but went on, in his prime, to paint moral allegories with an Old Master's hand. A Formalist history, for instance, intent on tracking how Modernist painting and sculpture achieved aesthetic autonomy, would have to dismiss a good deal of his later work - where Dix frankly borrows his manner and his themes from the great 16th century German painters. "The Cranach of the Proletariat" was one of the epithets bestowed on Dix in the 1950s. This was not meant to flatter, one can be sure, irrespective of whether the critic was from what used to be East Germany, where the painter settled after the Second World War, or from Western Europe, where the reputation that Dix enjoyed between the World Wars continued to attract attention to him.

A brief narration of Dix's career might be in order. He was a student in Dresden in the years before the First World War, where he must have come into contact with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and his fellow-artists at Die Brucke, who are generally regarded as the first Expressionists. Through them (or on his own) he may have encountered Analytic Cubist and Futurist work. Although the formal tumult of Early Modernism did not keep Dix away from the masters of the Northern Renaissance he found in the Dresden Gallery - and learning from them, as the self-portraits done in these years show - by the time the War came, he was able to paint himself as a soldier, in raw colour and with an Expressionist licence of gesture. Once he even did himself up as Mars, the Roman god of war, looking darkly out of the splintered pictorial space of a Futurist painting.

Tote vor der Stellung bei Tahure

The young Dix set off to war, sharing with many of his fellow-artists that peculiar fascination with violence which marked (and often marred) radical politics in Europe then (and which came from reading Nietzsche carelessly). He regarded it as "a natural phenomenon" which would serve to cure European culture of its "bourgeois" sickness. The reality of trench warfare, however, had a sobering effect on him: in the many sketches and drawings he did from the warfront, violence is never celebrated. When he returned from the war, he went back to school. Three years or so passed before he began to address again the horror of the trenches, which he went on to show with an almost brutal directness.

The etchings reproduced here give some idea of this. These were among a comprehensive selection of Dix's graphic works from the 1920s, which was recently shown in Mumbai and Bangalore, and will be on show at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Chennai between January 8 and 16, 1998. The gore (see Tote vor der Stellung bei Tahure) is characteristic of the early Dix, and there is a good deal of it in the exhibition. But his work is not always, or only, so disturbingly raw; there were works that were relatively restrained (for which Goya's Horrors of War might furnish some precedent), and one or two pieces that picked out an element of black comedy in the common soldier's experience of the "Great War" (consider Gastote (Templeux-La-Fosse, August 1916) and Essenholer bei Pilkem).

But whatever the nature of Dix's sense of comedy, it did not detach him from human suffering and degradation. These etchings are meant to shock, and that detracts from their quality as art, one might think - as Dix's critics did. Most of his early critics regarded his work as merely provocative. The harsher ones accused him of dishonouring the memory of the soldiers who died in the war. There was also the persistent charge that his depiction of sexual corruption was obscene. Dix was branded a degenerate by the National Socialists soon after they came to power in 1933 (even though his patrons were influential persons, who had provided him a flourishing practice - painting their portraits). He was dismissed from his academic post in Dresden; he withdrew to the country, and remained there through the period of the Second World War, composing the moral allegories mentioned earlier.

Gastote (Templeux-La-Fosse, August 1916)

After the War he returned to Dresden, and quickly regained his earlier position. Although his allegories were not quite examples of the Socialist Realism mandated by the East German state, his fame as a Modernist pioneer protected him. That, however, led critics to compare his paintings of this period unfavourably with the work done between the Wars. In the West, with the increasing dominance of abstraction (through the 1950s and most of the 1960s), Dix's insistence on painting the figure in a realist idiom meant that his works were largely neglected - or at best treated with condescension - by critics. It is another matter that his works have many buyers, and at good prices.

Dix passed away in 1969. The return of the figure to German painting in the 1970s prompted a revaluation of his art. Such a revaluation is still going on, and this exhibition is one sign of that. It is too early to tell whether or not Dix's later paintings will be accorded the sort of status the work of his youth has in the canon of 20th century art; but from the little I have seen of it, I am inclined to think not.

LET me return to the point raised earlier - about whether these etchings are too raw to be art. The extent to which a work may disturb the physical composure that is necessary for a proper aesthetic response, and remain a work of art, is difficult to establish. One's capacity to "enjoy" representations of what would be horrible or terrifying if experienced is quite remarkable. Late 20th century talk of art, especially the Post-Modern varieties that go by the generic name of Theory, would have little patience with a "proper aesthetic" response; but however naive that notion may be, it is of some use.

Take the work titled Essenholer bei Pilkem. It shows two soldiers crawling across the foreground on all fours, carrying pails in their mouths. It shows men reduced to the condition of dogs, and as such - with its hint of the absurdly comic - it is affecting. But what gives the work its visual interest is the rendering of the disk of the sun and its rays. In this visual context, compared to the other images, it has the quality of a diagram. The difference - between a diagrammatic image and the more organic images - works to make the sun something of an alien presence. The drawn rays of light are as strangely cold on our eyes, one imagines, as the rays themselves must be on the backs of the crawling soldiers. That seems palpably to involve us in their fate and so, importantly, augments our natural empathy with them.

Attributing to an image the sensory effects of its original is risky, of course. But such a metaphorical account of sensuous quality seems best able to bring out the nature of one's aesthetic response to the picture (which warrants our calling it a work of art. I should emphasise that the emotion communicated by showing men as dogs is necessary to this response: depiction seems, pace the Formalist, integral to how this work becomes a work of art.)

This notion of empathy - of imaginatively identifying the self with some (possibly alien) thing - is crucial to understanding Expressionist painting. Wilhelm Worringer's Abstraction and Empathy (published in 1908) had proposed these as tendencies opposed to each other in the making of art. Very baldly put, Abstraction pulls the artist's eye away from the world and draws art out of his "soul"; Empathy, on the other hand, pushes the artist towards identifying with what is found in the world, and this identification formally governs the production - and should induce a proper reception - of the image. (Kandinsky's painting is the standard example of the first tendency; and Franz Marc's of the second.)


Dix resisted abstraction as understood in this fashion (as did Max Beckmann and George Grosz, with whom he is usually grouped in discussions of Expressionist painting); Dix relied on the figure to represent social reality empathetically. (That might account for why his style varied so much: changing conditions of imaginative identification might require just that.) But his empathy often found unnerving objects: the dandified "Sex Murderer" (Lustmorder), for instance. In reading the figure thus, I am following the few early critics who were partial to Dix; but one could point as well to the influence of Nietzsche (and his injunction imaginatively to experience human actions as produced by sheer will, without first judging them morally). Some such move seems necessary to see this as a work of art: to respond aesthetically to the careful staging of the scene, to the details of the viscera, to the fastidious dress and toilette of the maniac - and perhaps to find some answer, finally, to the strange blend of appeal and aggression on his face. But that is too much to ask, one suspects. Most of us would be content if the artist's empathy with his subject were sensuously communicated to us. The picture does, I think, manage that.

The works on show come from the archives of the Institut fur Auslandsbeziehungen, which, together with the Goethe Institut, has sponsored the exhibition in India.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment