Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas

Here is a drawing of five troops marching forward in white gas masks, looking for all the world like distorted versions of dead men's skulls.

Otto Dix, from War (1924)

Otto Dix (1891–1969) was a German Expressionist painter and a soldier in the Great War. This etching, from his series Der Krieg, is entitled Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor (Stormtroopers advancing under gas). [Stormtroopers][] were units of specialist soldiers formed in order to carry out new infiltration tactics for assaulting Allied trenches, which were developed in the last year of the war. Stormtroopers moved in small groups ahead of the lines, often under cover of a poison gas attack.

Dix studied art in Dresden before the outbreak of war, and supported himself as a portrait painter. When the war began, eagerly enlisted and was assigned to a field artillery unit in Dresden. In 1915, he was sent to the Western front as a non-commissioned officer in a machine gun unit. In 1916, he, along with his unit, was sent into the Battle of the Somme. In 1917, his unit was transferred to the Eastern front, until the Russian Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk brought an end to war with Russia. In 1918 he was sent into the Spring Offensive on the Western front. He was awarded the Iron Cross and reached the rank of vice-sergeant-major.

After the war, Dix suffered from recurring nightmares and other symptoms of symptoms of [shell shock][]. His political views became increasingly leftist and anti-war. In 1924, he published a book of etchings entitled Der Krieg (War). The series of etchings, consciously modelled on Francisco de Goya‘s [Los Desastres de la Guerra][] which drew on his experiences, and the experiences of his fellow soldiers, both in active combat and after the war. The critic G.H. Hamilton described War as perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art… It was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist….

After the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, Dix’s works were condemned as degenerate art. He was fired from his position as an art teacher at the Dresden Academy. Two of paintings were seized by the government and displayed in the Munich Entarte Kunst exhibit in 1937. The paintings were later burned and Dix was forced to promise not to paint political subjects in order to continue selling his paintings. Although he painted mainly landscapes during this period, some of his works continued to carry allegorical attacks on the Nazi regime. In 1939 he was arrested and charged with conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Eventually he was released and the charges were dropped. During World War II he was forced into the Volkssturm (German Home Guard) and then, in 1945, into the German army. He was captured by French troops at the end of the war and held as a prisoner of war until February 1946. After he was released he returned to his old home of Dresden, which had been almost completely destroyed by firebombing in February 1945. His paintings after the Second World War were mainly religious allegories, but paintings such as Job (1946), Masks in Ruins (1946) and Ecce Homo II (1948) dealt with the effects of the war.

Dix died in Singen, West Germany, in 1969.

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