Otto Dix went to war voluntarily. A good part of his WWI duty on team Germany was as a machine-gunner, which provided Dix with front row seats to the Battle of Somme and other horrifying displays of anatomy, brutally exposed. He was entrenched in gore. He was repeatedly wounded, once near-fatally. Things around him were about as violent as is conceivable—and Dix, like others who thrilled to the front, spent those years cultivating a conception of violence. Which is shitty and all, except that that was his motive from the get go: Dix was eager for the terribleness, volunteering, he once explained, “to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it.”
He got it. And for the next near-decade, Dix stored the sought-after experience of those war years in the sick, fragmented cinema of the brain where we keep all the worst of what we’ve seen, that asylum for repression from which broken imagery escapes into our nightmares and peripheral vision. Then, in 1924, Dix produced Der Krieg (The War), a cycle of fifty-one demented and harrowing prints that document his experience in battle: exposed brains; eviscerated youth; abstractions that, upon reflection, reveal themselves to be piles of disembowelment; blood blood blood. The series acts as sort of post-traumatic stress exorcism modeled after Francisco Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra. Loose translation: “I’ve seen shit you can’t even imagine and these artworks will only give you a fraction of an idea of how awful my daydreaming mind has forever become.”
The Neue Gallerie in Manhattan is currently exhibiting a retrospective of Dix’s work, the first of its kind in North America.