In the sphere of literature and film studies, it’s not uncommon to critique portrayals of war. Certain ‘war stories’ have provoked controversy: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littel, Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg and Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky. Even the classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, was censored and burnt by the Nazis. Modern humanity is deeply concerned with the depiction of war. This makes sense everywhere in the world; the horrors of World War I and II, as well as other historical and ongoing conflicts, are not easily forgotten.
I’ve previously discussed the stylish and narrative choices by Anglosphere filmmakers in regards to World War II cinema. In this article, I felt a strong motivation to defend Boyne and Spielberg, as well as films such as ‘The Reader.’ When I’m critical of say, the lack of attention on the Pacific theatre, I’m making a broad, general point and not signalling out a specific film or movie. Individually, war stories are impossible to please everyone. We all have our perspectives on the ‘correct’ ways to depict warfare. Yet this debate is less prominent in the visual arts. Which brings us to a thoughtful artist: Otto Dix.
Who Was Otto Dix?
Otto Dix was a German painter born in the late 19th century. He volunteered for the German Army during the First World War and was assigned to a field artillery regiment in Dresden. Here, during the worst time in European history, the Battle of the Somme took place. Dix survived the war and earned the Iron Cross.
He returned to his home city, Gera, yet later moved to Dresden; here, he’d study at the acclaimed Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. His influences varied: Dada, Expressionism and Realism. Dix’s art provoked controversy. The 1923 painting, The Trench, was met with disgust while exhibited. War was not the only bleak strain in Dix’s art. Viewers witnessed prostitution, old age, gore and sex among the painted canvas. Weimar Germany was certainly a daring time for the visual arts, music and literature. But there wasn’t a general consensus among everyone about the role of art, and what it ought to look like.
Unfortunately for Dix, the Nazis considered his art degenerate. In 1937, some of his artworks were featured in a cruel, mocking exhibition of ‘degenerate art.’ Coupled with the strict restrictions on artists by Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels, this was a time of censorship, malice and evil. Dix joined the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts. He had no choice and was later arrested (although released) on charges of plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was conscripted during World War II yet later released by French troops. After the war, he returned to Dresden and slowly gained recognition for his artistic talent and sombre depictions of war.
Otto Dix died in 1969. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Otto-Dix-Haus opened in Gera, Thuringia. Guests discover Dix’s sketch books, watercolours and postcards. These illuminate a man, although disturbed by war, able to make his mark on the art world, while challenging presumptions about war. His war stories refused to please.
I’ll consider Dix’s series of engravings, called ‘The War.’ These include fifty images, bringing comparisons to Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War. It’s easy to understand this. Both Goya and Dix convey war’s horrors in multiple images. They are also explicit, brutal to look at. These artists chose to avoid the Romantic visuals of the 19th century, as seen in Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David. The departure from 19th century philosophy and culture is obvious. This gifts both artists with a contemporary vibe which has resonated with viewers since. Neither Otto Dix or Francisco Goya make for excellent propagandists: their anti-war stance is non-negotiable. There’s a fierce presence of ugliness with the colour palette and shapes. Individualism reigns, too. In Dix’s case, the soldier receives a microscopic focus. The soldier’s eyes present terror and madness. The War’s distortions of the human body, however, come from history. Realism is used masterfully.
Underneath the etchings, Otto Dix numbers each with numbers. Time is mediated: the viewer becomes increasingly aware of war’s horrors. Another remarkable aspect is the skull symbolism. Dix expresses this in two ways. The first one is explicit; skulls feature without embellishment. The second method connects contemporary warfare with the eternal theme of mortality. In a famous panel, the gas masks used in trench warfare during WWI take on a skull-like form. It is impossible for the viewer to discern facial features or to assign identity to the soldiers. Because of the parallel created by Dix, Der Krieg blends war stories with a depersonalisation power. There’s the consequence: a man loses himself during war. All that remains are gas masks and skulls.
The Nazis would later adapt skull imagery in their uniforms and communications. Their Sparta-like reading of war, where it’s glorious to die for the nation, is a polarising contrast to the sombre terror present in Otto Dix’s The War.
Dix captured the turmoil and disaster of war. Whereas previously, artists such as Eugène Delacroix emphasised the melodrama and grandiose ambitions of war, Otto Dix strips contemporary warfare to its brutal, unfair reality: the psychological and spiritual annihilation of the individual. Millions perished in WWI. Europe had changed forever. Otto Dix’s importance also comes from controversy. Depicting German life, and the heartbreak of war, failed to endear him to everyone, from powerful politicians to art curators. Because of this, Otto Dix can teach us a fundamental lesson about war stories. They won’t please all. Some have the power to upset and provoke outcry.
In the 21st century, the West is conscious of how ‘war stories’ are portrayed. I’ve noticed this as a book blogger. Films such as Life is Beautiful and Schindler’s List are critiqued for more than accuracy, but their cultural fit. I’ve observed the praise Come And See has received this past decade. This is partially from the frustration many Westerners feel towards the ‘Hollywoodization’ of history. Whilst disagreements occur, these discussions are worthwhile and matter to our post-World War II era. Otto Dix urges us to look close at war, in its nastiness and brutality, without retreating into sweet fantasies.
We all have views on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to tell war stories. These debates continue. However, the individual artist will eventually reach a decision on the preferred method in telling a war story.
I focused mainly on Otto Dix’s war stories. Yet there’s more; Dix painted women, portraits, cafe tables and Weimar parties. I suggest further research into Otto Dix. Meanwhile, the discussion and debates on war stories are ongoing.