Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Weimar Berlin / by Chris Hall

Otto Dix and George Grosz were both artists in Post World War I Weimar Berlin and participated in the New Objectivity art movement.  Both artists served in the German Army and their experiences during the war colored their art work.  Dix and Grosz were also ruthless, sharp observers of Weirmar Berlin decadence after the wartime defeat and the financial collapse.  The Weimar Republic encompassed the years between 1918 and 1933, when Hitler came to power.  The Weimar Republic was a Renaissance in intellectual production.  Germany was forefront in advancements in science, technology, literature, philosophy, and art.  Nine Germans won Nobel Prizes during the Weimar Republic, including Albert Einstein, for Physics in 1921.  Despite the progressiveness of the era, the Weimar Republic was far from stable.

 It was a strange and chaotic time.  Politics were passionate.  Roving gangs of Communists, Anarchists, Pro-Republics, and right-wing Nazi SA stormtroopers not only competed with each other for control of the government, but battled each other in the streets.  The treaty of Versailles, and later the Great Depression, produced inflation, effectively making currency worthless.  As a result, many people resorted to desperate means of survival, and crime and prostitution grew as a result.  During this time, police identified 62 organized criminal gangs operating inside Berlin.  Berlin became a capital of vice.  Aside from prostitution, it was also a hub for drugs (cocaine and heroin) and black market goods. Thrill seekers sought out Berlin as a destination and guide books were produced highlighting Berlin's erotic nightlife entertainment.  There were an estimated 500 venues, ranging from cabarets to brothels, with some catering to homosexual, lesbian, and transgender clientele.  Many Berliners, living in a world of sexual freedom and criminal violence. Became fascinated with lust-murders, or “lustmord,” and publishers met this demand by printing cheap crime novels called 'Krimi.”  

German art, literature, music, and film was made up of Expressionists, Dada, and a movement called the New Objectivity.  Expressionism and Dada had their roots before and during the War years, but the New Objectivity dominated German aesthetics starting in 1920.  Otto Dix and George Grosz formed their own version of New Objectivity called Verism in Berlin.  Verism refers to classical Roman aesthetic, Verus, meaning truth, warts and all.  The new Objectivity rejected Expressionism, with its reliance on Romanticism, fantasy, subjectivity, raw emotion and impulse, and focused instead on representing facts and real circumstances.  New Objectivity themes included the horrors of war, social hypocrisy, moral decadence, the plight of the poor, and the rise of Nazism.  Politically, the New Objectivity was left leaning and iconoclastic; they were hostile to big business and bourgeois society, as well as Prussian militarism and authoritarianism.  

Otto Dix, Self Portrait as Target, 1915

Otto Dix 

Otto Dix was a German Expressionist artist who volunteered for the German Army during the First World War.  He was at first assigned to a field artillery regiment, but in the autumn of 1915 he was transferred to a machine-gun unit on the Western Front and participated in the Battle of the Somme.  By the war's end, Dix had fought on both fronts, and was going to get training as a pilot before he was wounded in the neck.  Dix was  profoundly affected by his experiences during the war and would suffer recurring nightmares as a result.  In 1924 Dix produced a series of etchings that documented his experiences during the war.  Dix's etchings rival Goya's Disasters of War series from 1810-1820 for their gruesome depictions of the horrors of war.  

During the 1920's Dix tried to live a respectable life.  He married and had three children.  Dix began to have some success as a painter and was invited to teach art at the Dresden Academy.  As an artist, Dix viewed himself as both an Expressionist and an objective documenter of his times:  "Art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time." 

When the Nazis came to power, Dix was regarded as a degenerate artist and had him fired from his post as professor of art at Dresden Academy.  Dix had two painting, his War Cripples and The Trench, in the Entartete Kunst exhibition in 1937.  These works were later burned.  Dix was then forced to join the Nazi government's Reich Chamber of Fine Arts and had to promise to only paint inoffensive landscapes.  In 1939 Dix was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in an assassination plot against Hitler, but was later released.  Later, during the Second World War, when Germany's fortunes reversed, Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm home guard.  He was captured by French troops and was held in a POW camp until February 1946.  

Photograph of artist George Grosz

George Grosz

George Grosz was a Dada artist who served in the German Army during the First World War.    After the war, Grosz, along with Dix, would become a New Objectivity artist and make art examining the Weimar Republic's wounded soldiers, prostitutes, politicians, and profiteers.  Grosz was an expert in depicting the despair and wretchedness of man.

In Novermber 1914, at the outbreak of the war, Grosz volunteered for the Army in hopes that  he would avoid conscription and being sent to the front.  Disillusioned, he became a strong opponent of the war and was released for being unfit for duty.  A year later, however, he was recalled into the Army and given the assignment of transporting and guarding prisoners of war.  In 1917 Grosz was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock.  After he attempted suicide, he was hospitalized before being discharged.  For the duration of the war, Grosz, along with his friend John Heartfield, began making anti-war art.  In 1918 Grosz joined the Communist Party.  In January of 1919, Grosz participated in the Spartakus uprising.  Grosz escaped escaped arrest by using faked identification documents.  

In the late 1920's and early 1930's Grosz made art directly attacking Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.  In 1932 Grosz was forced to flee Germany and settled in the United States before becoming a citizen in 1938.  Critics of Grosz say that while in the United States his work became sentimental and Romantic.  After the war, Grosz returned to Germany, where he died on July 6th, 1959, from a drunken fall down a flight of stairs.

Post-Note

A few years back a friend of mine said my work reminded her of Otto Dix.  This surprised me a little bit, as Dix has not been a conscious influence.  It is true that since 2008 most of my work (particularly my drawings) has been a kind of social criticism.  I suppose I could chalk it up to post-graduate disillusionment and the fact that I graduated during a recession.  Before that my work had a more Expressionistic and Romantic tendency.  I don't mind being compared to Otto Dix.  There are worse people to be compared with.