Otto Dix - Biography and Legacy
German Painter and Printmaker
Biography of Otto Dix
Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix was born to Franz and Pauline Dix on December 2, 1891. His father was a mold maker in an iron foundry, and Dix inherited his strength of character and steel-blue eyes. From his mother, a seamstress, he received a love of music and poetry. He first displayed his artistic talent - especially in drawing - during elementary school. At the age of ten, he modeled for painter Fritz Amann and, impressed by his experience in the studio, 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.
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 as well as coloring photographs. The Academy did not offer academic painting, but a more craft-oriented education. As a result, Dix was essentially a self-taught painter. But he did try sculpting under the guidance of Richard Guhr. A bust of Friedrich Nietzsche he created was purchased for the Dresden State Museum, but was later destroyed by the Nazis.
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 Vincent 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.
When WWI began, Dix volunteered, somewhat eagerly, for service, and was drafted into a field artillery regiment; but by 1915 he was a machine gunner at the frontlines in France, and his experience of several horrific battles began to sour his enthusiasm. He was wounded several times, but managed to create sketches of many of the tragic scenes he witnessed. After the war, Dix resumed his art education with Max Feldbauer and Otto Gussman at the Dresden Academy of Art (1919-22).
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 Dadaist and Expressionist elements into his work. In 1919, he co-founded the Dresdner Sezession Gruppe and participated in two of their exhibitions at the Galerie Emil Richter. He created surreal portraits and woodcuts, even delving into collage and mixed media.
After 1920, Dix synthesized and transformed these styles into his own brand of realism. Over the next few years, he composed some of his most disturbing canvases of sexual violence, murder, and cruelty. His Skat Players (Card-Playing War Cripples) (1920) is an example of this grotesque, yet poignant imagery. In 1921, he 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, and became a part of both Johanna Ey's art salon circle and the German modernist Das Junge Rheinland group.
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, the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1925 that gave its name to the movement that 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 and France.
It appeared more sober and realistic than previous styles, though in the hands of artists such as Dix and Grosz, it was no less critical. Some of the artists were called the Verists and could be aggressive and cynical, while others, less abrasive, were described as Magic Realists. Dix was a Verist and, with a critical spirit, he turned his portrait skills on the decadence and debauchery of Weimar society, with works like Metropolis (1927-28). Other notable canvases from this period include his triptych The War (1929-32).
In 1931, Dix was appointed a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. The same year he showed work in exhibitions all over Germany and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This renown was relatively short-lived, however, as the Nazis began to target him, regarding his art as immoral. 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.
Forced to join the Nazi government's Reich Chamber of Fine Arts in 1934, Dix still managed to express himself. Seven Deadly Sins (1933) parodies Adolf Hitler as the embodiment of Envy. He was sent to a rural outpost and portrayed the surrounding landscapes in his work. In 1939, Dix was arrested on charges of plotting to kill Hitler, but the charges were dropped. He was captured by the French at the end of the war and held prisoner until 1946. Not wasting time, he painted a triptych for the prison camp chapel. After returning to Germany, Dix picked up where the war had interrupted his career. He resumed showing works and began making lithographs and documenting his war experiences and its effects in his work.
Late Years and Death
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 art academies in Florence, Berlin, and Dresden.
He continued making prints and participated in a short documentary film in 1965. In 1967, after traveling to Greece, he suffered a stroke, which paralyzed his left hand. He died in 1969.
The Legacy of Otto Dix
Dix is most remembered for the portraits he produced during the years of the Weimar Republic, pictures that have contributed to the enduring popular image of that famously decadent time in German history. They have also powerfully influenced portrait painters throughout the 20th century. Although the rise of abstraction in the 1940s and 1950s continued to erode the importance of figurative portraiture, the tradition of portrait painting has continued throughout the West, and many leading artists continue to speak of Otto Dix with reverence.