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World War I and the revolution

Otto Dix (1891–1969)
Storm troopers advancing under a gas attack from the portfolio War 1924
etching, aquatint, drypoint, 19.4 × 29 cm
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
© Otto Dix/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney

War is something so animal-like: hunger, lice, slime, these crazy sounds… War was something horrible, but nonetheless something powerful… Under no circumstances could I miss it! It is necessary to see people in this unfettered condition in order to know something about them.

– Otto Dix

Many artists and intellectuals in Germany responded enthusiastically to the outbreak of war in 1914, eagerly volunteering for service in the belief that it would bring cultural renewal and a rapid victory for Germany. However, this optimism soon gave way to the grim realisation of mechanised warfare’s potential to tear apart humanity and civilisation.

The works represented here are by the generation of artists who experienced war first-hand. These artists turned away from the bright sunlight depicted in many prewar Expressionist landscapes toward the representation of shredded nerves and nocturnal terror. These works show the devastating effects of war on the individual and society and depict fear, anxiety and violence.

The disturbing subjects provide important insights into the tough economic conditions and social dysfunction experienced by many during the tumultuous early years of the Weimar Republic (1918–33). During these years, a new democratic republic was founded in the town of Weimar in central eastern Germany after the abdication of the Kaiser in 1918 and the following year of violent revolution. To make matters worse, Germany was hit by an economic crisis and crippling hyperinflation that lasted from mid 1922 to the end of 1923.

Focus work

Otto Dix (1891-1969)
Stormtroopers advancing under a gas attack
etching, aquatint and drypoint, 19.4 × 29cm
from the portfolio War 1924
Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Year 7-12 Visual Arts: issues for consideration

  • Respond to and discuss what is happening in this artwork by Otto Dix. How has the artist composed the work to create a certain effect? Consider your initial response to this work. What does the artist want you to feel? How does the composition strengthen your understanding of the artists’ intention?
  • Respond to the figures in the artwork. What do they represent and how are they portrayed? Create a list of words that describe the figures and discuss their literal and symbolic meanings. Consider the quote by the artist above and discuss how this artwork personifies his understanding of war.
  • Research the important events occurring in society at the time. How have these events impacted on the artist and ultimately the way he approaches art making. What is the artists’ point of view about these events?
  • Would people today respond differently to those that viewed this artwork at the time it was created? What can today’s audience bring to the meaning of this artwork?