Jenny Farrell remembers Otto Dix and George Grosz, two German artists whose work was dedicated to the fight against fascism and war
The painters Otto Dix and George Grosz died fifty and sixty years ago respectively this month, almost eighty years after the outbreak of World War II.
Otto Dix (1891-1969) was an uncompromising fighter against the inhumanity of imperialism. Even before the outbreak of war in 1913, he had painted “Sunrise”. Black death-birds fly over an icy landscape; the rising sun resembles an exploding bomb – with dark clouds of smoke in the background.
It is a dark, ironic contrast to van Gogh's “Cornfield with Crows”.
Between 1929 and 1931, Dix created his main work “The War”. It was in triptych, an old masterly painting technique and form originating in Christian art. Three painted panels are attached together, usually as an altarpiece depicting the crucifixion in the centre panel, with secondary figures in the wings. Dix’s triptych is an urgent warning of the horrors of annihilation.
On the left side panel of “The War”, an endless row of soldiers march into battle in the early fog, under a blood-red morning sky. The light of the “sunrise” is reflected in the helmets. Only one face can dimly be made out; the others remain anonymous and thus stand for all. Hundreds come from a great distance towards the observer, turn and move away again into the distance. This V-shape with the reversal point at the viewer is extraordinarily effective in its use of space to convey an infinite number of helmets and weapons. The two men at the centre of the picture carry kitbags, one turns to the other and one eye is recognisable. In addition, a shoe and a water bottle are clearly visible, which helps to individualise these soldiers.
Using the triptych’s inherent reference to Christ’s crucifixion, the left panel alludes to the scene of Jesus carrying the cross. Like him, the soldiers carry their own weapons of death. However, unlike the middle section, the left scene has a certain order, and the soldiers are distinctly human.
This contrasts sharply with the frightening depiction of the central panel. Nothing human is perceptible anymore. The viewer expects Christ on the cross at the centre top of the picture, but instead is an impaled skeleton, with its gaping mouth and pointing finger, as if attempting to warn us. The boot preserved on the skeleton links it to the soldier, and to the boot hanging from the kitbag in the left panel.
The bony finger points to a crater-like landscape and lifeless ruins. People, town and vegetation are all destroyed. The finger of the skeleton also points to the dead man, whose perforated legs protrude and clearly allude to the crucified Christ. He is turned upside down, thus ironically reinforcing the image's indictment. Most of the central panel depicts intestines and dismembered people. Neither sandbags nor a gas mask were able to prevent death. This central scene of horror inexorably reveals the nature of an imperialist war.
On the right panel, a soldier whose face bears the features of the painter, drags a wounded man from the murder zone, another survivor also crawls out of the inferno. They no longer wear helmets or uniforms; they do not notice the corpse over which they move. A charred tree trunk crosses this panel, echoing the taking down of Christ from the cross. Again, Christ is identified with the soldiers.
The burial of Christ is often depicted in the predella, the lower part of the triptych. In the interpretation of this picture by Dix, opinions differ as to whether the soldiers depicted are asleep or dead. In my opinion, bearing in mind the clear allusion to the depictions of Jesus on winged altars, these soldiers are dead. The one in the foreground with his blond moustache resembles the barely visible soldier's face in the left panel. It seems he is sleeping, his head resting on the kitbag, but his uniform has two bullet holes in the chest. So, despite his calm appearance we must assume he is dead.
The eyes of those lying next to him are bandaged, which de-individualises them. The last soldier has no shoes - dead soldiers often had their shoes removed by the living soldiers for further use. This had already been hinted at in the left panel with the single shoe hanging from the kitbag as well as the shoe on the skeleton in the middle picture. Additionally there are already rats at the feet of the dead. A blood-red shroud is attached to a very low ceiling, evoking a claustrophobic, sarcophagus-like box containing the dead. The straw in the front right corner of the predella is a final reference to the barn where Jesus was born. Here now lie the victims of “The War”.
The art of Dix' contemporary George Grosz (1893-1959) was also of great importance in the 1920s. The Soviet revolutionary and writer Ilya Ehrenburg wrote about George Grosz:
Germany at that time found its portraitist in George Grosz. He depicted the racketeers with sausage like fingers. He showed the heroes of a past and a coming war, haters of humans draped with iron crosses ... Yes, he dared to show privy councillors naked at their desks, dolled up fat little dames, gutting corpses, murderers carefully washing their bloody hands in a basin ... In 1922 it appeared like fantasy, in 1942 it became routine.
George Grosz's milieu was the city of Berlin in the 1920s. Here, he observed the world of parasites, war profiteers and racketeers, whores and drunks. He painted the amorality of an obsolete society, as well as the victims of the ruling class.
One example is his painting “The Agitator” (1928), in which Grosz warns against the rising Nazis. The heart of the agitator is emblazoned in the colours of the empire – black, white, and red. He is decorated with medals and the Iron Cross. The swastika on the tie knot looms ominously right in the centre of the picture. While the applauding bourgeois men with their well-fed faces and hands are still relatively realistic on the lower left side of the picture, they become increasingly grotesquely distorted and gaudy on the right side. Central to the painting is the ridiculous agitator himself, with a truncheon over his arm, a distorted face, his right hand raised as if taking an oath, and surrounded by the tools of his “trade”: the megaphone, a sports rattle in his left hand, the marching drum and the gramophone all provide background noise.
Even bigger is the sabre, which hangs from under his little coat. Above his head is a black, white and red dunce’s hat with German oak leaves. Beside his spurred foot is a poster bucket. Above the agitator floats the male Promised Land of roasted chickens, wine and faceless naked women. On the upper left, the oversized laurel crowned soldier's boot and a dark fortress form a contrast to this paradise. The former soldier, decorated with the Iron Cross, seamlessly transforms into a Nazi to the applause of the bourgeoisie. Grosz recognized this early on and communicated it.
Grosz's art is fed from many sources, one of which was futurism. The kaleidoscopic simultaneousness of objects in the visual world of George Grosz uses futuristic pictorial techniques for satirical social criticism. Grosz composes his works in such a way that the space develops vertically, from the bottom to the top. His metropolitan milieu pictures are not abstract but make drastically visible the rot of an obsolete social order.
Grosz made disorder visible, as the essence of bourgeois society. Together with John Heartfield, George Grosz developed political photomontage, a new art genre, which was later perfected by Heartfield. Like Heartfield, Grosz anglicized his name from Georg Groß, in protest against German chauvinism.
In 1933, when the fascists succeeded in seizing power, George Grosz emigrated to New York. There was no doubt that his life was under great threat. Although the climax of his social satirical art was in Germany, his theme remained the indictment of fascism, as for example in his 1936 visionary work “Apocalyptic Rider”, in which the horrors of war are anticipated.
In 1949, he painted a series of surreal stick men drawings, eerily scrawny creatures in a destroyed world – an appeal to the consciences of people not to allow new wars. In the landscape of this picture, a figure carries a burnt painting in his hand. It has been destroyed, and yet it is the only thing that remains for them and therefore somehow worth preserving. George Grosz returned to Berlin in 1958 and died there on 6 July 1959.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.