Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale
06 February 2014 | London

LOTS 289 - 292

The following five works - by those masters of the German Avant-garde, Otto Dix, Ludwig Meidner and George Grosz - offer an intriguing insight into the ways that modern artists reacted to the horrors and atrocities of the First World War. When the war started in 1914, the twentieth-century had already been witness to unprecedented artistic revolution and innovation and though, on the one hand, the outbreak of war in 1914 put an abrupt end to life as it had been before, it also proved to be fertile ground for artistic expression. Since the themes of fear, isolation and existential crisis were already at the heart of many German Expressionist artists’ work, the haunting new realities of wartime life (whether on the battlefield itself in the cases of Dix and Meidner, or from wings in the case of Grosz) lent the depiction of these themes a newfound intensity and authenticity. Though all three artists undoubtedly drew upon their experiences of the war in their art, it was perhaps most directly expressed by Dix, because of his front-line experience as a machine-gunner: in the Autumn of 1915 he was sent to the Western Front and he was also at the Somme during the major allied offensive of 1916. War profoundly affected Dix for the rest of his life and he took every opportunity, both during his active service and afterwards, to document his experiences. These experiences would become the subject of many of his later paintings and are central to his remarkable Der Krieg series. Executed in 1924, the Der Krieg (War) series of 51 prints arose out of Dix’s own experiences of the atrocities of the battlefield and was consciously modelled on Goya’s equally horrific Disasters of War series, 82 etchings which documented the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish War of Independence from 1808 to 1814.

Otto Dix, Near Langemark (February 1918), etching with drypoint and aquatint, 1924

Many of the works that Dix actually executed in the war years themselves (including the three that are presented here) are quite abstract in appearance, the lack of compositional focus helping to convey the magnitude and simultaneous chaos of the situation. In Grapenkampf (Combat in the trenches), (lot 289), the bloodied bodies are in places indistinguishable from the churned up mud and debris they are strewn in amongst, and there is a similar sense in his graveyard scene (lot 290), where it takes the viewer a few seconds to recognise the number of gravestones and gunners hidden in amongst the precarious hilltop scene. No time for grief or proper respect for the dead, these gunners are firing at their next targets perched in amongst the graves of their comrades. The haunting intensity of Meidner’s portrait (lot 291) nods to the angst-ridden psychology of Van Gogh’s portraiture, but in the context of war, the piercing eyes of Meidner’s subject take on a much more specific and sinister significance, in contrast to the more vacant and general existentialism explored by Van Gogh.

Otto Dix, Shock Troops Advance under Gas, etching with drypoint and aquatint, 1924

The 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War has prompted a deserving reappraisal of the significance and influence of the wartime atrocities on the course of German Avant-garde art. This renewed focus is being led by a major exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, titled ‘1914. The Avant-gardes at War’.