Updated: June 13, 2011



These Study Guides on War and Art were originally prepared for a course entitled "Responses to War: An Intellectual and Cultural History" given in the Department of History at The University of Adelaide between 1989 and 1999.

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Otto Dix "Machine Gunners Advancing" from Der Krieg (1924)




Peter Paret, Imagined Battles: Reflections of War in European Art (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). Chap 7 "Machine-gun Section Advancing," pp. 99-115.

Matthias Eberle, World War I and the Weimar Artists: Dix, Grosz, Beckmann, Schlemmer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), "Otto Dix: Fighting for a Lost Cause. Art vs Nature".


Son of a foundry mould-maker, studied at Dresden Art Academy, began reading Nietzsche 1911, volunteered enthusiastically 1914 at age 23. August 1914 trained as artilleryman and later machinegunner. Autumn 1915 on Western Front, then service on Eastern Front, returned 1918 Western Front as aerial observer. Rose to rank of sergeant and saw service at Champagne, Artois and Somme. In interview 50 yrs after war stated:

The war was a horrible thing, but there was something tremendous about it too. I didn't want to miss it at any price. You have to have seen human beings in this unleashed state to know what human nature is... I need to experience all the depths of life for myself, that's why I go out, and that's why I vontunteered. (1).

Carried copy of Nietzsche, The Joyous Science and the Bible in his soldier's knapsack. From N Dix learned that growth and decay necessary part of nature, procreation and death part of the life cycle, struggle for survival, cruel cycle of birth and death.


"Self-portrait as a soldier" (1924)

1. Eberle, p. 22.


War and Art

Otto Dix's Warrior Art during WW1


Self-portraits made during war show view of himself as warrior:

  • "Self-portrait with Artillery Helmet" (1914) - man with halo and inner fire, martial enthusiasm
  • "Self-portrait as Soldier" (1914) - like wild animal
  • "Self-portrait of Mars" (1915) Dix as Mars God of war, chaos within self key to growth and creativity, fragmentation, rotation of stars, rearing horse, crest of antique helmut superimposed on own helmut, mingling of basic elements earth, air, fir, water.

Other Self-portraits

"Self-portrait of Mars" (1915)


300 or so drawings he drew during war (not exhibited until 1962) show no indication of later pacifist stance but war as Nietzschean primal experience which unleashes enormous human energies.

  • "Hand-to-hand fighting" (1917) and "Lovers on a Grave" (1917) soldiers locked in fighting like lovers' embrace
  • "Grave (Dead Soldiers)" (1917) from death arises fertility
  • "Shellhole with Flowers" (1915) and "Trench with Flowers" (1917) earth scarred with wounds from artillery like fertilising plough furrows or female vulva. In war diary OD stated "Ultimately all wars are fought over and for the sake of the vulva".

War also releases enormous power of technology.

  • "Direct Hit" (1916) and "Falling Ranks" (1916) exploding shells reduce earth to geometric shapes, machine gun fire dismembers target into angular segments.

War reduces men to mere beasts with superhuman or mechanical energy:

  • "Crouching Man" (1917) and "Charging Infantryman" (1916)

Other Images of Trench warfare

"Shellhole with Flowers" (1915)

Post-War Pacifist Art - "Der Krieg" (1924)


Loss of his faith in machines, war and the creative possibilities of destruction and violence after the war. Post-war art attacked the indifference of civilians towards the plight of disabled veterans. Power of machines transformed into ghoulish instruments of prostheses. Life and death struggle no longer leading to better world and supermen but war cripples and life and death struggle among prostitutes, murderers, gangsters. Reworked his war experiences in 1924 into powerful indictment of war and inhumanity of its destruction. According to Eberle:

When five years after the armistice he began to digest the nightmare of his war experience, these new impressions mixed with the old. War had not changed society, but it had changed individuals, among them the artist himself. In retrospect, he longer saw the primal force of humanity set free in war but individual men's weakness, presumption, their wild grotesque greed for life, and the grisliness of their lifeless bodies in decay. In short, the war had not changed human morality but human flesh, `human matter', as Dix called it. From a distance of several years Dix seemes to have considered this one of the main results of the war. Of the preparations for his portfolio of war etchings, he recalled, `Goya, Callot, and earlier still, Urs Graf- I asked to be shown prints of theirs in Basel. It was fabulous... how human matter was demoniacally transformed.' (1)

A Skull (1924)

1. Eberle, pp. 38-9


Print sequence "War" (1923-24):

  • "Dead Sentry" and/or A Dead Sapper
  • Meal Time in the Trenches soldier eats rations oblivious to worms eating dead companions around him
  • A Skull piece of scalp with hair clinging to bone, alive with maggots and insects. Life continues but independently of human life.

In war drawings war was creative force like fertiltiy of women. In post-war period OD turnded to drawing prostitutes and victims of sex-murders. Perversion of his wartime view - war no longer creative/procreative but war as rape:

Similar change in post-war self-portraits - war brings out bestiality in men:

  • "This is How I Looked as a Soldier" (1924) or "Self-portrait as a soldier" (1924) belligerent machine-gunner striding threateningly towards viewer, arrogant look about him

Depicted war veterans as crippled (physically and emotionally?). Often placed his own name or likeness somewhere in drawing to suggest OD was both victim and perpetrator. Wrtime interest in technology transformed into cynical interest in prostheses"

  • "War Cripples" (1920)

other images from "Krieg" series (1924)

Meal Time in the Trenches


Returned to war theme in 1929-32 with "War Triptych" - "Triptych" (1929-32) - detail of middle panel. War as a Christian passion play without the possibility of salvation:

  • L: Morning. column of soldiers go into battle like Jesus went to Golgotha
  • C: Afternoon. reign of mechanical death, man gled corpses, witnessed by man in gas mask crouching under ruins of bridge on which is impaled a corpse
  • R: Night. illuminated by flare OD carries wounded comrade away from line of fire
  • Bellow: Soldier's sleep of Death? sleeping men underground in bunker, when they awake they will face same fate

And in 1934-6 with "Flanders" (1934-36) influenced by reading Barbusse, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad (1917) . Heavy rain has reduced landscape to primeval slime, blending of human life and more primited forms, suggestion that only after return to original ooze could salvation and rebirth follow? Quote from "Under Fire" (pp. 319-20):

"Triptych" (1929-32)


After rise to power of Nazis OD entered "inner emigration" after being thrown out of professorship at Dresden in 1933. Lived at Lake Constance.

OD's connection with war did not stop with WW1. Became POW in WW2:

"Self-portrait as POW" (1947)