In December 1891 Otto Dix was born into the Generation of 1914. He was one of millions of late 19th Century babies who ushered in the 20th on the battlefields of the First World War. Dix was the eldest son of Franz and Louise. His father toiled in a iron foundry and his mother was a seamstress.
Dix was exposed to art at an early age. He spent time in the studio of his older cousin, the landscape painter Fritz Amann. Children play – and Dix was no different – but gradually his art improved. Encouraged by elders, Dix took an apprenticeship with the landscape painter Carl Senff. In the early part of the 20th Century, he began to paint landscapes of his own.
By 1910 his apprenticeship was complete and Dix left home for Dresden. He had been accepted into the Saxon School of Arts and Crafts. Here he encountered influences that would greatly shape his work.
Like many Expressionists, Dix was moved by the Naturalist and Symbolist tendencies of the printmaker Max Klinger. He was first exposed the artist in Dresden. Nietzsche was popular then and Dix devoured his work. He would later claim his most important sources of inspiration were the Bible, Goethe, and Nietzsche.
Modern memory holds that the First World War was greeted with joy in the capitols of Europe. Perhaps, but a strange elation did drive many young men to the colors. Dix was twenty-two in the summer the arch duke died. When war was declared in August of 1914, he immediately volunteered. Most thought the war would be over by Christmas and worried they’d never get to the front. The stalemate lasted four long years.
Dix was originally assigned to an artillery unit in Dresden. In 1915, he was transferred as a NCO to a machine gun unit. Entrenched automatic rifles helped create the stalemate in Europe. Machine gunners sprayed bullets at advancing troops and they were very hard to take out. Dix helped defend the line against the great British advance on the Somme. Siegfried Sassoon, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were on the other side.
Dix was wounded several times along the Western Front. In August 1918, he served in Flanders where he took a nearly fatal wound to the neck. A medic was able to stop the bleeding and he was moved back to an aid station. The war ended with Dix in a hospital bed. He was discharged in September 1918.
During the war, Dix kept a diary and a sketchbook with which he chronicled his experience. They would provide material for a major work of fifty prints called simply, The War. Dix was profoundly affected by the war. He described a recurring nightmare in which he crawled through bombed out houses. His experience with war and its aftermath became a dominant theme in the art he produced after 1914.
Dix returned to Dresden after his military discharge. He resumed art studies as best he could but the war soon crept into his work. Dix was continually haunted by the brutality of war. His training in landscapes paid dividends as he tried to capture the desolate fields of Flanders, carved with military trenches and strewn with bodies. Dix emphasizes the disproportionate burden that was placed on soldiers. His infantry men are mutiliated, wounded, suffering or mad while his sailors are carousing with whores.
In 1921, Otto Dix traveled to Dusseldorf where he met Doctor and Frau Hans Koch. He was enthralled by both. The doctor, a urinology specialist, sat for a portraint in which Dix surrounded him with menacing medical equipment. He then took the doctor’s wife to his bed. When Dix returned to Dresden, Martha Koch followed him. She left her husband and two children behind. The Doctor was unperturbed because he had already begun an affair with Maria Lindner, his wife’s older sister. Dix and Koch became brothers-in-law and remained friends until the Doctor’s death in 1952.
Dix met Karl Nierendorf the same year he met his wife. Nierendorf was an influential art dealer in Berlin. In 1924, he published Dix’s crowning achievement, a fifty piece portfolio of etchings entitled Der Krieg (The War). The series confronted mass inhibition on trauma that constrained memory of the Great War. It stood anathema to the myth of the war as a glorious cause. There was no “stab in the back.” There was mud, mutilation, death and futility.
In 1926, Dix became a professor in the Kunstakademie in Dresden. He maintained that position until the Nazis rose to power in 1933. Modern art ran anathema to Adolf Hitler’s conservative sensibilities. Dix drew special ire as a prominent voice in the anti-war movement. He was stripped of his professorship and his paintings were displayed in the Degenerate Art Museum in Munich. They were later destroyed.
In Nazi Germany, the countryside offered some respite from state oppression. After he was stripped of his professorship the Dix family moved to the shores of Lake Constance where he painted mostly inoffensive landscapes. He refused to emigrate since his paintings could not make the trip abroad. Surely, they would have been destroyed.
In the latter stages of the Second World War Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm. This was a national militia comprised of young boys and old men. He was captured by French troops as the Reich collapsed. He spent the duration in a French P.O.W. camp.
Dix continued to work until his death in 1969.