Yay it’s May! And today we’re celebrating on Museum Quick Bites with a moody self-portrait (1912) by Otto Dix. On display at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), Dix’s somber selfie pays homage to German portrait painters from the Renaissance. Let’s dig into the details…
Self-Portrait (1912) by Otto Dix, Detroit Institute of Art, Photo by cjverb (2020)
Zoom in and check out Dix’s piercing blue gaze and stern expression. How his monkish haircut and drab, buttoned-up coat pop against the bright blue background and highlight Dix’s dour appearance. Notice his precarious hold on the carnation, suggesting he’s feeling awkward and uncomfortable with the delicate bloom.
Close-Ups of Self-Portrait (1912) by Otto Dix, Detroit Institute of Art, Photos by cjverb (2020)
It’s not clear if Dix intended to amuse viewers with his grumpy stare, but it makes me smile. His intent was to put a modern spin on German Renaissance portraits, but this painting reminds me of an angsty teenager’s school photo. Check out the comparisons below.
Left: Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (c1480), Southern Germany, Art Institute of Chicago
Center: Self-Portrait (1912) by Otto Dix, Detroit Institute of Art, Photo by cjverb (2020)
Right: Portrait of a Woman (1533) by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain)
Fun Arty Fact: Pink carnations, according to the DIA, were included in paintings to symbolize an engagement or marriage. Dix, however, was single when he created this self-portrait.
Artist Background: Otto Dix (1891-1969) was born into a working-class family in Untermhaus, Germany. His mother was a seamstress and his father worked in an iron foundry. At age 15, Dix began an apprenticeship with local painter, Carl Senff, and within three years was accepted into the Dresden Hochschule für Bildende Künste (Dresden Academy of Fine Arts) where he studied painting, sculpture, and printmaking.
Small Self-Portrait (1913) by Otto Dix, WikiArt (Public Domain)
During his early 20s, Europe was in turmoil. After the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) and his wife, Sophie, Duchess von Hohenberg (1868-1914), a series of events led to World War I. Dix readily enlisted in the German military. However, after spending time on the front lines and suffering multiple injuries, Dix’s enthusiasm for war began to wane. He spent his down time in the trenches sketching horrific scenes of war. In 1918, after an armistice was reached, Dix returned to the Dresden Academy, a decorated soldier, but his post-war art took a dark turn.
Left: Self-Portrait as a Practice Target (1914-1915) by Otto Dix, WikiArt (Public Domain
Right: Storm Troops Advancing Under Gas (1924) by Otto Dix, WikiArt (Fair Use)
In the 1920s, Dix was a rising star. He married Martha Koch in 1923 and within four years, accepted a faculty position at his alma mater, the Dresden Academy. Dix also became part of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity Movement). In response to Expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit artists created works that were raw and unsentimental. Dix’s art was popular in post-World War I Germany, for its satirical themes and social commentary. He was called a “savage satirist” and “patron of the grotesque” for his portrayals of life’s grittier elements such as crippled war veterans, prostitutes, and the debauchery of the Weimar Republic.
Left: Weimar Berlin (1927-1928) by Otto Dix, WikiArt (Fair Use)
Right: Seven Deadly Sins (1933) by Otto Dix, WikiArt (Fair Use)
However, in the 1930s the Nazis claimed power and they took a dim view of Dix’s satirical art. He was fired from his faculty position at the Dresden Academy and 260 of his works were confiscated. In response, Dix boldly painted, The Seven Deadly Sins (1933) which includes the personification of Envy wearing an Adolf Hitler mask sans mustache. Note, Dix added the mustache after the Nazis were defeated.
Left: Painted Sabotage of Otto Dix (1937), page from Entartete Kunst Exhibition Program
Right: Randegg in the Snow with Ravens (1935) by Otto Dix, WikiArt (Fair Use)
Dix eventually returned to landscape and Christian-themed paintings, no doubt forced to make this change in genre or face prison…or worse. Despite this shift, in 1937, the Nazis featured some of Dix’s previous work at the Entartete Kunst, a Nazi-sponsored exhibition of art they deemed subversive and degenerate. Amid much fanfare, the Nazis encouraged the public to view and mock Dix’s and his fellow artists’ work. To learn more, click on this Museum Bites: Bronzed (2019) link.
And if that weren’t enough, Dix was jailed in 1939 having been suspected of plotting to assassinate Hitler. The charges were later dropped and in 1945, at age 53, he was drafted into Hitler’s Home Guard Army. He was eventually captured by French forces, but released after World War II ended.
Left: Otto Nagel & Otto Dix (right; 1957), German Academy of Arts in Berlin, Photo by German Federal Archives
Center: Self-Portrait as a Prisoner of War (1945-1946) by Otto Dix, WikiArt (Fair Use)
Right: Self-Portrait with Marcella (1969) by Otto Dix, WikiArt (Fair Use)
Dix returned to Germany and began painting, this time the subject matter was based on his World War II experiences. His popularity once again grew and during the 1950s and 1960s, Dix traveled and exhibited his art throughout Europe and the United States. In 1967, he suffered a stroke while visiting Greece. Despite paralysis in his left hand, he continued to paint. Dix died two years later at the age of 77. If you’d like to view more of his work, click on this Otto Dix link, courtesy of WikiArt.
That wraps up our look at Otto Dix’s flowery self-portrait. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Quick Bites. In the meantime, be safe, be kind, and take care 🙂
Cover photo by Pezibear, courtesy of Pixabay.