Together with Max Beckmann and George Grosz, Otto Dix is considered one of the most important German artists of the Weimar era, not least for his etching cycle War—a seminal anti-war statement. Focusing on war cripples, sex workers, sexual deviants, and the vices of the German ruling class, Dix’s work is an indictment not just of World War I but also of social and political corruption in the Weimar Republic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dix was forced to resign from his professorship at the Dresden Academy almost as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. Branded “degenerate” by the Nazis, he was no longer able to produce the acerbic social commentary for which he is best known. His later works consist of fairly innocuous landscapes and portraits.
Dix was born to a working-class family in Gera-Untermhaus. In 1914, following several years at the School of Applied Arts in Dresden, he volunteered for military service and was assigned to command a machine-gun unit on the Western Front. He served for the entire duration of World War I and fought on both fronts. Like so many of his compatriots, he was profoundly traumatized by his experiences in combat, which fueled his attacks on militaristic bourgeois society. By the 1920s, Dix had become a vociferous social critic.
Dix was a founding member of the Dresdner Sezession-Gruppe 19 in 1919, and in 1920 he exhibited at the First International Dada Fair. Additional politically oriented affiliations after the war included the Novembergruppe, the Internationale Arbeiterhilfe, the Rote Gruppe and Nie Wieder Krieg (Never Again War), a pacifist group to which Käthe Kollwitz also belonged.
In 1923, his painting Girl in Front of a Mirror caused Dix to be charged with dissemination of pornography; his trial ended in acquittal. In 1924, his work was poorly received in the “First General German Art Exhibit” in Moscow. However, starting in 1925 and through the end of that decade, he grew more successful. The artist was appointed to a professorship at the Dresden Academy in 1927.
Unfortunately, by 1930, the National Socialist Party had targeted Dix as “subversive,” and in May 1933 he was ousted from his teaching post. In September of that same year, the inclusion of War Cripples in the exhibition “Images of Decadence in Art” attracted particularly negative attention. By 1934, Dix had been forbidden to paint, and in 1936, he moved to Switzerland, where he limited himself to landscapes. He was among the artists selected for the “Degenerate Art” exhibit of 1937, and the following year, the Nazis destroyed or sold more than 260 of his works. Also in 1938, Dix participated in a protest exhibition organized by London’s New Burlington Gallery in response to “Degenerate Art.”
Dix seems to have moved about France, Germany, and Switzerland during the Second World War. After the war, he returned permanently to Germany. However, his work had lost the satirical bite characteristic of the Weimar period.