BANNED MEDIA MONTH #2: Der Krieg, by Otto Dix (1924)

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, part of Der Krieg

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, part of Der Krieg

Type of Media: Etching

Like many others in his generation, my grandfather served in World War II. And, like those many others who served, he was expected to have war stories. People would ask him about his time in the Pacific, but for a large majority of his life he wouldn't speak on it. Instead, he'd give them the same reply he always gave when someone asked him about his service: "War is Hell."

Otto Dix was born in Untermhaus, Germany in 1891. He was in his early 20s and studying art in Dresden when World War I broke out, and he volunteered to serve in the German army. From 1915 to 1918 he fought on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, including the Battle of the Somme, and by the time he was taken out of the war by a wound to the neck he had risen to a senior non-commissioned officer rank and earned himself an Iron Cross.

After his service, the nightmares started.

Dix described a recurring dream he had, in which he crawled through bombed-out buildings. The dream haunted him, and as he resumed his study of art his work took an incredibly grim turn. His landscapes became filled with trenches and dead bodies. He became less infatuated with romantic subjects and began to depict things he saw in real life, both during the war and afterward. Fields of dying men, sailors numbing themselves with drinks and prostitutes, disfigured veterans begging in the streets of Berlin. He and fellow painter George Grosz lead an artistic movement focused on depicting the reality of German society, dubbed New Objectivity.

Skull, part of Der Krieg

Skull, part of Der Krieg

In 1924 his work culminated in a collection simply called "Der Krieg" (The War), a series of about fifty black-and-white etchings that depict the horrors Dix saw on the battlefield. Dix used many different techniques to create the patterned metal plates that would press ink into paper, and the result is a collection that looks muddy, mutilated, and ugly. Compared to depictions of the Great War as glorious and heroic, Der Krieg stood in stark contrast.

Looking through Der Krieg you see images that are nightmarish mixed with images that look drawn from reality, starkly horrifying with an occasional bit of gallows humor. On one page there's a morass of inky, vaguely human shapes, and on the next a clear sketch of a rotting corpse holding a gun pointed at its own head. Some of the etchings look like caricatures, with people distorted and exaggerated based on their emotional state or wounds. It shows a mind that not only saw war, but drank in all the details of the experience and ruminated on them.

In 1926 Dix began teaching at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. He held that position until 1933, when the Nazis rose to power and began decrying his art, and all other modern art, as "degenerate". Avant-garde art had been flourishing in 1920s Germany, but to the Nazis modern art was elitist, indecipherable, and tainted by Jewish culture. Dix's work especially drew their ire due to his horrid depictions of war, which ran against their plan to use art as propaganda. Dix, and many of his peers, were stripped of their teaching positions.

In 1937 the Nazis organized the Degenerate Art Exhibition, a show mocking modernist and avant-garde art. It featured Dix's painting War Cripples, with a caption accusing Dix of insulting the heroism of German Great War veterans. Afterward, his paintings were burned. The show ran concurrent to the Great German Art Exhibition, which featured statuesque depictions of people inspired by Greek and Roman art. This was art the Nazis wanted their people to appreciate, art that reflected their idea of genetic perfection. 

Ironically enough, the Degenerate Art Exhibition wound up being twice as popular as the Great German Art Exhibition.