Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This is the bad uncle Dix

I will either be famous or infamous - Otto Dix
 Gert Heinrich Wollheim, This is the bad uncle Dix, 1923

Otto Dix (1891-1969) was born in Untermhaus, Germany, now a part of the city of Gera. From his father, a mould maker in an iron foundry, he inherited his steel blue eyes; from his mother, a seamstress, he received a love of music and poetry. Otto first displayed his artistic talent - especially in drawing - during elementary school. At the age of ten, he modeled for the painter Fritz Amann and decided to become a painter himself. His school art teacher, Ernst Schunke, guided his study and helped him get financial assistance. The award required that he learn a craft while he continued to study art with Schunke, so he became an apprentice decorator for four years.

Otto Dix, Street Fight, 1927 (destroyed)

In 1909, Dix began his study at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. There was a huge creative output in the city, with a well established and internationally renowned art and music scene that hosted large exhibitions and events. Dix did not struggle financially during art school: after the first semester he was exempt from paying fees and received a stipend.  He also made extra money selling small portraits and genre paintings. The Academy did not offer academic painting, but a more craft-oriented education. As a result, Dix was essentially a self-taught painter.

August Sander, The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha, 1925

Through his intensive study of the Old Dutch, Italian and German masters, Dix taught himself how to paint with their methods - building up layers of paint to create depth and luminescence. However he was also impressed by the Expressionists and the Post-Impressionists, and in particular by a Van Gogh exhibition that he saw in 1913. Primarily painting portraits and landscapes, Dix experimented with pen and ink and made his first prints in 1913.

Otto Dix, The Match Seller, 1920

When the First World War erupted in 1914, Dix enthusiastically volunteered for the German Army. He was assigned to a field artillery regiment in Dresden. In the fall of 1915 he was assigned as 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 to the western front in 1918, he fought in the German Spring offensive. He earned the Iron Cross (second class) and reached the rank of vice-sergeant-major.

 Otto Dix, Stormtroopers during a Gas Attack, 1924

Dix was profoundly affected by the sights of the war, and would later describe a recurring nightmare in which he crawled through destroyed houses. He represented his traumatic experiences in many subsequent works, including his famous portfolio of fifty etchings called Der Krieg (The War), published in 1924 by Karl Nierendorf. You can see the whole series on the website of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Otto Dix, Group Portrait: Günther Franke, Paul Ferdinand Schmidt, and Karl Nierendorf

In the aftermath of the war, Dresden was a shadow if its former self. No longer a seat of government, it suffered a huge drop in income and severe rationing. However, the artistic scene adapted and came back full force. With the value of money and political ideas in constant flux, Dix was driven to experiment. He had already taken on some elements of Futurism and Cubism during the war years; now he began integrating Dada and Expressionist elements into his work. Dix also created surreal portraits and woodcuts, even delving into collage and mixed media. In 1919, he founded the Dresden Secession Group together with Conrad Felixmüller and Lasar Segall. Other members included Peter August Böckstiegel, Otto Griebel, Oskar Kokoschka, Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler and Gert Wollheim.

Otto Dix, Self-portrait with Nude Model, 1923

On his arrival in Dresden in 1919, Otto Dix made contact with numerous figures in the city’s cultural circles. Hugo Erfurth was one such figure. Fifteen years old than Dix, Erfurth was by that time an established photographer and his studio welcomed the leading personalities of the German Weimar Republic. In 1921 Dix participated in exhibitions in Berlin and Dresden before moving to Düsseldorf in 1922. This relocation was an important shift as he studied with new teachers, Heinrich Nauen and Wilhelm Herbeholz. He became a part of Johanna Ey's art salon circle where he met and befriended the painter Jankel Adler.  Dix also joined the artist's association "Das Junge Rheinland" (The Young Rhineland).

Arthur Kaufmann, The Contemporaries, 1925. The Painting shows members of the artist's association Das Junge Rheinland. Lower row left to right: Gert Wollheim, Johanna Ey, Karl Schwesig, Adalbert Trillhaase. Upper Row left to right:Herbert Eulenberg, Theo Champion, Jankel Adler, Hilde Schewior, Ernst te Peerdt, Arthur Kaufmann, Walter Ophey, Otto Dix, Lisbeth Kaufmann, Hans Heinrich Nicolini.

In 1923 Dix married Martha Koch, and over the next decade had three children, all of whom were captured on canvas throughout their childhoods. Throughout the 1920s Dix was included in many of the most significant exhibitions of new art in Germany. Most importantly he was included in Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1925 that gave its name to the movement Dix would forever be associated with. Neue Sachlichkeit evolved out of Expressionism, but took on qualities of the classical, linear realism that was becoming prevalent in Italy at that time. 

 Otto Dix, Portrait of Poet Ivar von Lücken, 1926

In 1927 Dix became a professor at the Dresden Academy and was appointed a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in1931. The same year he showed work in exhibitions all over Germany and at MoMA in New York. This renown was relatively short-lived, however, as the Nazis began to target him, regarding his art as "degenerate". As such, he was forbidden to exhibit in Germany, but he traveled to Switzerland several times during the mid 1930s and participated in several exhibitions there.

Otto Dix, Dedicated to Sadists, 1922

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they immediately dismissed Dix from his post at the Dresden Academy. In response to his dismissal Dix created The Seven Cardinal Sins (below). The figure of Sloth, depicted in the center, is a skeleton whose outstretched arms and scythe form a sort of swastika. Dix felt that this sloth or lack of concern and unwillingness to take early action by the German people had allowed Hitler's rise to power. The most poignant aspect of this picture is the representation of Envy, riding on the back of Avarice: he wears a Hitler mask. However, it wasn't until after the war that Dix painted in the telltale mustache. 

 Otto Dix, The Seven Cardinal Sins, 1933

Dix, like all other practicing artists who had not left Germany, was forced to join the Nazi government's Reich Chamber of Fine Arts (Reichskammer der bildenden Kuenste), a subdivision of Goebbels' Cultural Ministry (Reichskulturkammer). Membership was mandatory for all artists in the Reich. But Dix still managed to secretly paint an occasional allegorical painting that criticized Nazi ideals. Dix's paintings The Trench and War Cripples were exhibited in the state-sponsored Munich 1937 exhibition of degenerate art, Entartete Kunst. They were later burned.

Otto Dix, Melancholie, 1930

A couple of months after his dismissal Dix went into "inner emigration" moving to a small village at Lake Constance near the Swiss border, where he lived on private commissions. In 1939 he was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in Georg Elsner's attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler but was later released. Drafted into the Volkssturm during the last weeks of the war, Dix was captured by the French army and held prisoner until 1946. Not wasting time, he painted a triptych for the prison camp chapel.

Otto Dix, Portrait of a Prisoner, 1945

After returning to Germany, Dix picked up where the war had interrupted his career. He resumed showing works and began making lithographs documenting his war experiences and its effects in his work. Much of Dix's later work focuses on post-war suffering, religious allegories and Biblical scenes. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, he traveled a great deal and exhibited his work constantly. He was appointed to membership of many arts academies in Florence, Berlin and Dresden. In 1967, after traveling to Greece, he suffered a stroke, which paralyzed his left hand; he died in 1969. You can see a timeline of Otto Dix's work on my Flickr page.


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