Born on December 2, 1891, in Untermhaus, Germany, Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix was a painter, printmaker and watercolourist. He is widely considered one of the most influential artists of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s.
From 1905 to 1914, Dix trained as a decorative wall painter in Gera and Dresden. Starting in 1909, he taught himself easel painting, focusing on portraits and landscapes. Dix’s first paintings were in a veristic style, but after encountering works by Van Gogh and those in the style of Futurism, he incorporated these into an Expressionistic style.
From 1914 to 1918, Dix served in the German army where he made countless sketches of warcenes in both realistic and Cubo-Futurist manners. The experience of war, became a dominant motif of his work until the 1930s. He later said that “War is something so animal-like: hunger, lice, slime, these crazy sounds … War was something horrible, but nonetheless something powerful … Under no circumstances could I miss it! It is necessary to see people in this unchained condition in order to know something about man.”
Following the war, Dix studied at the Dresden Akademie der Bildenden Künste and in 1919, was a founding member of the Dresdner Seccession, a group of radical Expressionist and Dada artists and writers. Dix depicted gruesome scenes of war and revolution, and depictions of legless, drastically disfigured war cripples. In 1920, he exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin. “Dix employed a mixed-media technique that fused painting and collage using found objects. In his printmaking he echoed the motifs of his paintings, resulting in five portfolios of engravings and one of woodcuts by 1922.”
In 1920, Dix returned to working in a veristic style. He drew nudes at the Akademie and painted portraits of friends and working-class models. His works also included socially critical motifs, scenes of brothels, and a large triptych entitled The Trench.
Dix received critical and commercial success after his shift to a revised form of realism. He had his first solo exhibition in 1923 at the Galerie I. B. Neumann in Berlin. In 1925, Dix was one of the leading painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), an art movement that arose in Germany as an outgrowth of, and in opposition to expressionism.
While Dix was gaining recognition, his work was also coming under attack. The Trench, which was purchased by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne was perceived “anti-military” and the museum returned the painting. As well, Dix was accused of pornography after exhibiting his Girl Before Mirror, his painting of an aging prostitute. He was acquitted, but right-wing political organizations continued to link him with left-wing plots to undermine German morality.
Dix moved to Düsseldorf in 1922 and married Martha Koch. Themes in his work were less political and he created a series of watercolours that depicted violent and/or morbid erotic subject matter. Dix also became favoured as a portrait painter of Germany’s theatrical and literary groups and their patrons.
Dix moved to Berlin in 1925 to be a part of the city’s art scene and to organize a series of exhibitions in Berlin, Munich and Dresden. He gained a professorship at the Dresden Akademie in 1926. In 1931, he was named as a member of the Preussische Akademie der Künste.
“While continuing to paint portraits and nudes, Dix injected an increasingly pessimistic and allegorical content into his work during the early 1930s. Nudes emerged as witches or personifications of melancholy.”
After the Nazi election in 1933, Dix was stripped of his teaching position and all honours on the grounds that his paintings included morally offensive works that were “likely to adversely affect the military will of the German people”. He was forbidden to exhibit, and his work was confiscated from German museums to feature in various exhibitions of entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art).
Seeking seclusion, Dix moved first in 1934 to Randegger Castle near Singen, and then in 1936 to Hemmenhofen, a small town on Lake Constance. “Participating in the ‘inner emigration’ of numerous German artists and intellectuals, supported by a small number of patrons, Dix employed a polemically significant Old Master technique, such as was also often advocated for Nazi art, emulating German Renaissance painters. He also changed his arts most frequent content to the relatively neutral one of landscape, but landscape markedly bereft of human presence and in rejection of contemporary events.”
Dix was drafted into the German territorial army in 1945. He was captured by French troops, served as prisoner of war at Colmar, after which he returned to Hemmenhofen. His work focused on portraits and self-portraits, Christian motifs, landscapes, and printmaking. “In politically divided Germany, he was unusual in his ability to negotiate between the West and East German regimes, making annual visits to Dresden, appointed to the academies of both West and East Berlin, and the recipient of major awards in both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic.”
Dix continued to work in his later years. In the 1950s and 60s he traveled a great deal, constantly exhibiting his work. In 1967, after traveling to Greece, he suffered a stroke which paralyzed his left hand. Otto Dix died in Singen, Germany, on July 25, 1969.