The First World War, the Great War, saw hundreds of thousands of men killed – and millions of people delivered to a lifetime of madness and misery. Its consequences of economic and emotional devastation led directly to a second great war to destroy another generation. In a very real sense the world is still working through the long-term consequences of the failed negotiating skills of the great powers of 1914.
The official “celebrations” of Australia’s involvement in this “war to end all wars” will draw attention to the many war memorials that stand in capital cities and small towns. Invariably, these monuments base their design on the visual language of classical Greece and Rome. It is easy to think there is some kind of universal solace in the aesthetics of the Golden Section and polished granite with bronze. Those less involved in the ceremonial nature of the commemorations may see a direct link between the sanitised solemnity of events recording the number of dead and the jingoism that sent them to their death.
Australia’s first official war artist, Will Dyson, was on the side of the common soldier. But because he wanted to honour the soldiers he, too, reverted to classical stereotypes, giving them the proportions of Greek gods and heroes. The Australian War Memorial has an extensive collection of the work of this war artist who shared some of the dangers of the men in the trenches.
On the other side of Lake Burley Griffin, the National Gallery of Australia holds the greatest riposte to any idealisation of war and its soldiers. Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (The War), a suite of 51 etchings, is an enduring visual record of the real and human consequences of modern warfare. Appropriately enough its purchase was funded by the Poynton Bequest. During the Second World War Dr Orde Poynton was at Changi, a prisoner of the Japanese.
Der Krieg is a direct descendent of Goya’s great commentary on the Napoleonic years, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). Etching, especially in the hands of a master, is a brilliant medium to convey moral truths to a wider audience. The immediacy of the drawn line works with the depth of the bite of acid to add layers of emotion, while aquatint gives the tonal delicacy of blood. Because intaglio prints are multiples they are not confined to one space and so the images resonate around the world.
Der Krieg is both particular in its harsh detail of the worst that the killing fields can do to men, and universal in that its lessons cross all cultures. This is such a widely known suite of etchings that it is a shock to realise that when Der Krieg was first published by Karl Nierendorf in Berlin, and then toured throughout Germany as part of a pacifist exhibition, only one full suite was sold. But in 1924 the last thing Germans wanted to see was a visual reminder of the events that had precipitated their desperate poverty and total disillusionment. Der Krieg remains like a bad conscience – once seen it is never forgotten but keeps gnawing away at the mind, reminding of crimes committed, pain inflicted, of suffering beyond human endurance.
When the stars misaligned in 1914 and politicians of all kinds unleashed the dogs of war, tens of thousands of young men around the world believed the lies of patriotism. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) gives a sense of the naive idealism of those early volunteers from Germany as they rushed to mobilise against the French and British as well as the raw colonials of Australia, New Zealand and Canada. At the beginning of the war they had enlisted believing Horace’s dictum Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and right to die for your country) but by the time they realised it was a lie, it was too late.
Otto Dix was among those first volunteers, and his bravery as a machine gunner saw him awarded the Iron Cross. He later said that he originally enlisted because he wanted to experience the complete reality of war. The power of Der Krieg is that he has given the knowledge of his experience to generations. He places himself as the dispassionate observer of the angst of the ordinary soldiers who understand the folly of their misplaced patriotic faith, but see the necessity of continuing to play their part as doomed elements of the military machine.
A series of small gouaches in the collection of Chemnitz’s Museum Gunzenhauser is the first record of what Dix saw in the trenches. These are heartbreaking in their immediacy, presented as the record of a young man overwhelmed by the sight of skeletons and rotting flesh. Here, the skeleton of a French soldier, identified by fragments of his blue uniform, lies exposed in the field, embedded in the flowers fertilised by his rotting flesh. In Nächtliche Szene (Nocturnal scene), the madness and violence of no-man’s land explodes in dark confusion.
The memories of the trenches never left Dix. When Maria Wetzel interviewed him in his old age, he recalled how he “kept getting these dreams, in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through”.
In 1923 Dix painted Die Trench (destroyed during the Second World War), a work that directly relates to Nächtliche Szene. The rising Nazi forces were furious at its stark reality and condemned Dix for making art that “weakens the necessary inner war-readiness of the people”. The orchestrated hostility that greeted Dix’s first great visceral response to trench warfare may have been a factor in the creation of Der Krieg which was completed the following year. This suite of etchings is similar in scale to the little gouaches he had made at the Western Front, but in both composition and execution they are significantly more complex, revealing him as a master of observation and memory.
Der Krieg was first exhibited in Berlin at Ernst Friedrich’s Anti-War Museum, which also collected uncensored photographs of the war. Dix certainly saw these photographs, but the form and intensity of Der Krieg relate directly to Dix’s own experiences, both on the front and away from it. Dix saw himself as being a part of a trajectory of the artist as master craftsman in the same way as his most admired Renaissance masters – Dürer, Cranach and Grünewald. It is worth noting that these artists were from the first generation of Protestants and used the metaphysical language of art to paint and draw moral truths in a conflicted world.
In both his paintings and his etchings, Dix understood the importance of technical perfection. In Mahlzeit in der Sappe (Lorettohohe) (Mealtime in the trenches – The Loretto Hills) the skeleton of the Frenchman he first painted as a gouache is transformed into an ethereal aquatinted ghost, grinning at the tough cross-hatched lines of the animal-like soldier as he wolfs his food. Behind the squat figure of the diner, the muddy peaks of no-man’s land appear to be about to engulf him. The skeleton serves to give both the context of the soldier’s life and to predict his future.
It may be that the soldier will end screaming in agony as in Zerschossene (Shot to pieces), a work that shows the full contradictory power of Dix’s achievement. Technically there is a lightness and fluidity of line and tone. The graceful ease of the line, the intensity of the blacks, the carefully modulated tonality of the aquatint should make this beautiful – if it were purely abstract. Instead the viewer sees the subject’s head with his jaw shot away. The dark gouges reveal blood and guts spilling from the dying soldier’s body as he writhes in agony. Dix does not spare the viewer. There is no sanitised comfort of a swift brave death in a noble cause for this poor wretch. Instead, Dix gives an alternative for those who lose their minds after seeing their friends die in such a manner.
Nächtliche Begegnung mit einem Irrsinnigen (Night-time encounter with a madman) is a portrait of one of the many lost souls who staggered through the blasted towns of France and Belgium before the war’s end and in the years that followed. The subject’s destroyed mind is shown in a circular confusion of deep etched lines, with the empty grinning face coming through their depths. The ruined town, where nature and architecture have been blasted into disconnected fragments, is pale and ghost-like against the night sky. Tellingly, Dix does not identify this lost soldier’s nationality. He belongs to all armies, and to none. Der Krieg and his other great paintings of war are more than arguments for peace; at their heart, they are a consideration of the nature of humanity. In his old age Dix consciously linked his approach to the attitudes of his admired old masters: ‘You have to be able to witness martyrdom without dissolving into pity’.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Dix could have followed many of his liberal countrymen, and fled in exile. Instead, he chose to endure, to share the fate of those less-fortunate citizens who remained. When he was forbidden to exhibit his “degenerate” art, Dix undertook what he described as an ‘internal exile’ in the countryside at Lake Constance near the Swiss border. The paintings of these years are dominated by strange disturbed landscapes, works that were so realistic that they could not be interpreted by the authorities as degenerate or disloyal but nevertheless indicate a sense of dystopia. The uncanny colouring makes it look as though he is painting another world. He also turned to allegorical religious subjects.
The way that Dix made art and lived his life gives a different model of patriotism to that promoted by most ideologies. He was, as a young man, a soldier and made art so that the world would know the realities of what war does to men. In 1945, as Germany was losing the war, the 54-year-old artist was conscripted into the army, captured by the French and spent some time in a prisoner of war camp. He then returned home to Germany, to paint. Throughout his oeuvre there is this quality of self. Otto Dix once said that all of his art was “the search for truth” . Looked at in that light, Der Krieg is about exposing the truth; the mature reflection of a man who discovered, through experience, the consequences of war.
- ^ See http://Spartacus-educational.com/ARTdix.htm.
- ^ Walter Schmits of the Kölnische Zeitung cited in Dennis Crockett."The Most Famous Painting of the "Golden Twenties"? Otto Dix and The Trench Affair, Art Journal, vol. 51, no. 1, Uneasy Pieces, Spring: 1992, pp. 72-80 .
- ^ Quoted Fritz Löffler (trans. R. J. Hollingdale) Otto Dix, New York 1982 p. 118.
Joanna Mendelssohn is Associate Professor at UNSW Art & Design. She is the lead researcher in Australian Art Exhibitions 1968–2009: a generation of cultural transformation.