Graphic reality of war's brutality
Der Krieg [War]
An exhibition of Otto Dix's anti-war prints
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Until October 26
November 11, 2008, will mark the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
Remembrance Day, with its emphasis on the noble sacrifice of the heroic fallen, offers a bitter-sweet vision of war that is ultimately redemptive: flags, wreaths, homilies and bugles.
Otto Dix's print cycle Der Krieg [War] remains a powerful and supremely relevant corrective to the false ennoblement of mass slaughter that is still perpetuated in officially sanctioned remembrance ceremonies.
In 1928, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon was so disgusted by this burgeoning national cult of the "Glorious Dead" that he penned a furious response to the opening of the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres: "Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone/The armies who endured that sullen swamp…. Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime/Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime".
Born to a German working class family, Dix (1891-1969) earned his living as a painter of wall decorations. During spare moments, he immersed himself in creative dreams and experimented on paper and canvas. In 1914, war intervened and the struggling young artist soon fell in with the marching millions who volunteered for active service.
Appointed to a German machine gun company, he made it to the Western Front in the autumn of 1915. In the months and years that followed, Dix's unit was involved in heavy fighting on the Somme and elsewhere. He was wounded on several occasions, once almost fatally.
Having accepted the inevitability of an early death, Dix found it difficult to come to terms with his survival in November 1918. He would spend much of the next decade processing his wartime experiences, channelling profound trauma into some of the most powerful war art ever produced.
Back from the war, Dix embarked on a course of formal study. Bored and repelled by the stale traditionalism that prevailed in state-run art academies, he dropped out and exhibited a series of angry, iconoclastic works at the first International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920.
During the early 1920s, Dix, George Grosz and other leading post-expressionists of the Neue Sachlichkeit ("New Objectivity") forged an uncompromising social-realist aesthetic, exposing the hypocrisy of conservative institutions and the seamy side of life in the Weimar Republic.
Appalled by the spread of militarist propaganda, Dix also sought to document what he had personally witnessed on the Western Front. After re-visiting the raw material in his frontline sketchbooks, he produced a sequence of 51 etchings that unveiled the full horror of the corpse-ridden trenches.
It was a world of dead men mutilated in every conceivable way by modern weaponry — rotting intestines blown out of stomach cavities; long tongues dangling obscenely from jawless crania. Leering, maggot-ridden skulls lay everywhere, and decomposing limbs protruded from the stinking mud.
As for the living who co-existed with the dead, they were reduced to a state of utter degradation, their faces permanently set in harsh, animalistic masks.
In the battered towns and villages behind the line, we encounter French civilians fleeing in terror from British bombing raids, and the sight of a maddened young mother offering her breast to a dead baby lying on the rubble.
Dix's soldiers get vilely drunk and consort with prostitutes. Some commit the age-old war crime of rape, sparing not even the local nuns.
Der Krieg was first exhibited at the International Antiwar Museum of Berlin in August 1924, creating an immediate sensation. Not since Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra had anyone compiled such an uncompromising phantasmagoria of brutalised, suffering humanity.
Hailed as a masterpiece by progressive critics, Der Krieg was inevitably pilloried by the ultra-nationalist right, whose call for German re-armament was beginning to gather pace.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, it came as little surprise that the work of Otto Dix featured prominently in their list of banned, "degenerate" art.
Intent on waging a campaign of conquest and racial annihilation, the Nazis demanded from their hack artists an aesthetic that glorified war and the Aryan warrior archetype.