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Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix (December 2, 1891 - July 25, 1969) was a German painter and printmaker. Noted for his ruthless depictions of Weimar society and of the brutality of war, he is one of the most important artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).
Otto Dix was born in Untermhaus, Germany, now a part of the city of Gera. The eldest son of an iron foundry worker, he was exposed to art from an early age; his mother had written poetry in her youth, and he had a cousin who was a painter. In 1910, he entered the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts and supported himself as a portrait painter.
When the First World War erupted, Dix enthusiastically volunteered for the German Army. He was taken to a field artillery regiment in Dresden. In the fall of 1915 he was assigned as a non-commissioned officer of a machine-gun unit in the Western front and took part of the Battle of the Somme. He was seriously wounded several times. In 1917, his unit was transferred to the Eastern front until the end of hostilities with Russia. Back in the western front, he fought in the German Spring offensive. He earned the Iron Cross (second class) and reached the rank of vice-sergeant-major.
Dix was profoundly affected by the sights of the war, and would later describe a recurring nightmare in which he crawled through destroyed houses. He represented his traumatic experiences in many subsequent works, including a portfolio of fifty etchings called War, published in 1924.
At the end of 1918 Dix returned to Gera, but the next year he moved to Dresden, where he studied at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste. He became a founder of the Dresden Secession group in 1919, during a period when his work was passing through an expressionist phase. In 1920 he met George Grosz and, influenced by Dada, began incorporating collage elements into his works, some of which he exhibited in the first Dada Fair in Berlin. He also participated in the German Expressionists exhibition in Darmstadt that year.
In 1924 he joined the Berlin Secession; by this time he was developing an increasingly realistic style of painting that used thin glazes of oil paint over a tempera underpainting, in the manner of the old masters. His 1923 painting The Trench, which depicted dismembered and decomposed bodies of soldiers after a battle caused such a furor that the Wallraf-Richartz Museum hid the painting behind a curtain. In 1925 the then-mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, cancelled the purchase of the painting and forced the director of the museum to resign.
Dix was a contributor to the Neue Sachlichkeit exhibition in Mannheim in 1925, which featured works by George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Karl Hubbuch, Rudolf Schlichter, Georg Scholz and many others. Dix's work, like that of Grosz—his friend and fellow veteran—was extremely critical of contemporary German society and often dwelled on the act of Lustmord, or sexual murder. He drew attention to the bleaker side of life, unsparingly depicting prostitution, violence, old age and death.
Among his most famous paintings are the triptych Metropolis (1928) and the startling Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926). His depictions of the legless and disfigured veterans that were a common sight on Berlin's streets in the 1920s, very clearly illustrate their forgotten status within contemporary German society, a concept also developed in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they regarded Dix as a degenerate artist and had him sacked from his post as an art teacher at the Dresden Academy. He later moved to Lake Constance. Dix's paintings The Trench and War cripples were exhibited in the state-sponsored Munich 1937 exhibition of degenerate art, Entartete Kunst. They were later burned.
Dix, like all other practicing artists, was forced to join the Nazi government's Reich Chamber of Fine Arts (Reichskammer der bildenden Kuenste), a subdivision of Goebbels' Cultural Ministry (Reichskulturkammer). Membership was mandatory for all artists in the Reich. Dix had to promise to paint only inoffensive landscapes. He still painted an occasional allegorical painting that criticized Nazi ideals. In 1939 he was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in a plot against Hitler (see Georg Elser) but was later released.
During World War II Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm. He was captured by French troops at the end of the war and released in February 1946. Dix eventually returned to Dresden. After the war most of his paintings were religious allegories or depictions of post-war suffering. Otto Dix died in Singen, Germany, in 1969.
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