Otto Dix's Der Krieg is one of the finest and most unflinching depictions of war in western art. His early 20th century vision of the horrors of the battlefield ranks alongside those of Jacques Callot's Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre and Francisco Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra.
Dix enlisted in the army soon after hostilities began and took part in some of the bloodiest engagements of the entire conflict, including the Battle of the Somme, the Russian front, Verdun and Ypres. His work before and in the early stages echoed the dynamism of the Italian Futurists, whose work was exhibited in Germany in 1913. Whilst Dix avoided the nervous collapse experienced by many other artists, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (lot 192) and Max Beckmann (lots 128-41) he was nonetheless radically transformed by what he saw. The excitement and fascination with industrial warfare gave way to an intensely critical attitude towards the German social and military establishment once the war was over. Back in Dresden he became involved with a small Dadaist group, and through them exhibited in the First International Dada Fair in 1920. He adopted a collage technique derived from Cubism by the Dadaists well-suited to depicting the grotesque products of war and its corrupting effects on society. Der Syphilitiker, lot 142 in the present sale, is a telling example of this subject and technique.
His satire of the society that had survived was driven in part by a desire, a need almost, to exorcise the ghosts that haunted him. 'My dreams were full of debris' he said many years later. (Quoted in Dix: War, John Willett, Disasters of War, Arts Council Touring Exhibition, South Bank Centre, London, 1998).
This exorcism was typified by a large, gruesome painting entitled The Trench (1920-23) which was sold initially to the Wallraf-Richartz museum in Cologne, and then, after much controversy given back to Dix before finally finding a home in the Dresden State Art Gallery. In between it was sent on tour as part of a pacifist exhibition called Nie wieder Krieg! (Never another War!), the popularity of which prompted Dix's new Berlin dealer Karl Nierendorf to commission a series of fifty prints on the same theme, to be published in Berlin in 1924.
The painting was to slumber in a Dresden storeroom until it was seized by the Nazis and shown in the notorious Entartete Kunst exhibition in 1937, where it hung near a complete set of Der Krieg. The painting subsequently disappeared, and was presumably destroyed. The prints, however, have survived - Dix's finest, most famous and passionate work.