Otto Dix was born on December 2, 1891 in Untermhaus. He was the oldest son of Ernst Franz Dix, an iron foundry worker, and Pauline Louise Dix, a seamstress. Dix posed as a model for a cousin and this experience awakened his own interest in becoming an artist. An elementary school teacher gave him his first drawing lessons. At a young age, Dix undertook an apprenticeship with a local house painter and decorator in Gera, which he completed in 1909.
In 1910, Dix moved to Dresden and began his studies at the Großherzoglich-Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule (Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts). Here, he was exposed to Nietzsche and also discovered the work of Max Klinger. Dix claimed his most important sources of inspiration were the Bible, Goethe, and Nietzsche.
Dix volunteered for World War I and spent the majority of his time on the western front in France as a machine gunner. He was wounded multiple times, once almost fatally. During the war, he executed several hundred drawings and gouaches. He also kept a diary and was a regular correspondent.
Following the war, Dix returned to Dresden resumed his formal studies at the Kunstakademie (Art Academy), where he took courses in easel painting. He was a founding member of the Expressionist-oriented Dresdner Sezession Gruppe 1919 (Dresden Secession Group 1919). At the end of 1919, he had his first exposure to the Dada movement and collage elements begin to appear in his work. Dix participated in the 1920 Erste Internationale Dada Messe (First International Dada Fair) in Berlin, where two of the works he exhibited addressed the war.
During a visit to Dusseldorf in October 1921, Dix met Martha Koch, the wife of doctor and art collector Hans Koch. Dix and Martha later married in 1923. Also around 1921, Dix met art dealer and publisher Karl Nierendorf. Nierendorf played a substantive role on Dix’s career in the 1920s. He published Dix’s 1924 portfolio of fifty etchings entitled Der Krieg (War), an unflinching depiction of the conflict and its victims. Nierendorf also encouraged Dix to focus on watercolors in 1922 and 1923 during the period of hyperinflation.
In 1925, Dix and his wife Martha relocated to Berlin. It was here that he created his iconic portraits. Dix’s art from this period can appear shocking with its hyper-realistic style and sometimes unfavorable depictions of his sitters. The distortions often verge on caricature. His aim was to convey the inner character of the sitter. Ugliness was favored over beauty for its ability to suggest hidden truths about life, and yet in Dix’s hands it is seductive. Dix developed a technique that mimicked the Old Masters he admired. Inspired by the work of Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and Hans Baldung Grien, Dix began layering his paint following a method developed in the sixteenth century. He preferred wooden panels for support and used repeated layers of glazes. In addition, he incorporated allegory, biblical themes, and favored the triptych as a format for its religious associations. All of these innovations made Dix a unique figure during mid-1920s. While in Berlin, Dix established important contacts, his work was included in important exhibitions, and he found good clients.
In 1926, at age thirty-five, Dix was named professor at the Kunstakademie in Dresden. He remained in this position until 1933 when the National Socialists came to power. Up until that point, he had been one of the leading portraitists of his generation. With the loss of his teaching position, the Dix family struggled to survive. They relocated to Lake Constance where he was able to work largely undisturbed during this period of turmoil. Between 1936 and 1945, Dix devoted himself to landscape painting and works that depicted allegorical themes. Through such works he made a subtle attack on those in power. Dix chose inner emigration rather than exile. When asked why he chose to remain in Germany he replied: “Go to America?...How was one supposed to emigrate, when you’ve got a stable full of paintings here? The Nazis would have come and confiscated everything. Impossible!” His work was included in the 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition.
Following the war, Dix returned to his pre-1923 style, painting landscapes, portraits, still-lifes, and religious subjects. In 1949, he was offered professorships in Dresden and Berlin but he turned both down. He continued to paint in a representational style even though abstraction was the dominant form at the time. Late in his life, as there is a resurgence of interest in the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, his work received more interest. The first important catalogue raisonné was published during his lifetime by Fritz Löffler in 1960. Dix died in Singen in July 1969 following a second stroke.
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