S otheby’s London is honoured to present one of the most comprehensive collections of Otto Dix prints still in private hands. This important single-owner collection surveys Dix’s powerful interpretations of life in the Weimar Republic, with an emphasis on his early prints and rare, complete portfolios. Each virtuosic work captures the horrors of war, while celebrating Dix’s mastery of the graphic arts. Altogether this extraordinary selection offers a unique opportunity to acquire some of the most impactful images of 20th century Germany by a leading artist.
Sotheby’s is grateful to the Archive of Modern Conflict, London, and experts Ian Jeffrey, Timothy Prus, and Martin Dammann for their guidance and contributions to this sale.
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Otto Dix trained as a decorative painter for a decade before joining the German army and serving throughout the war. In 1919, his eyes opened by life on the front line, he began to imagine himself in the lower depths amongst the diseased and maimed. He dealt with topics in poor taste: mutilated veterans, for example, forced to beg on the streets. In the newspapers he read of sex crimes and of serial killings.
He recalled people driven mad to the point of suicide by memories of life and death in the trenches, and by subsequent hardships. Military life had also familiarized him with the dangers of syphilis, a major threat to war efforts on all sides. Dix, a handsome upstanding man always well turned-out, represented himself as an unmoved witness in the alternative cultures to which he and his contemporaries had been so brutally exposed.
Looking back, Dix said that he didn’t need drawings or any other records to remind him of wartime experience. Nor did he try to give an orderly account of events in the etched series Der Krieg, preferring to rely on arbitrary recall. In warm weather, he noted, dead horses inflated and exploded. At night, in the light of flares, landscape showed up to good effect.
When digging-in, one sometimes came across extemporised graves. The nearest he got to a documentary study in der Krieg featured ein Unterstand, a dug-out or bunker with two men playing cards as others slept (see lot 19). In the foreground a slight man, heavily bitten by lice, heads for the exit. His spectacles are secured by string loops – a sign of fragility, and seen elsewhere in the series. The card-players, to either side of a carbide light, are typically brutal – and the environment would have been rank with tobacco smoke.
The complete portfolio, comprising 50 etchings with drypoint and aquatint, 1924.
Street scenes were mostly genteel until electric trams and traffic brought a new order of sounds to city streets. Futurists may have looked forward to exhilarating urban experiences but Dix, demobilised in Dresden in 1919 and after, came across inversions featuring sprawled and crippled beggars on the city’s pavements, avoided and mostly ignored by passers-by. These awkward beggars may have been inspired by Nietzsche’s ‘’Ugliest Man’’ who induced pity and shame in Zarathustra.
Pity meant condescension as opposed to a degree of identification with shame. Dix was at one with the beggars, who may even have been former comrades. In another famous street scene of 1920, Kriegskruppel, four largely limbless ex-servicemen march past a shoemaker’s (lot 6). It was shown at a Dada exhibition in 1920, bought by the Dresden Museum, put on show as Degenerate Art in 1937 after which it disappeared. He made a version in drypoint, included in a set of eleven – also from 1920.
Rules complement and mitigate chaos in Dix’s world picture. His skat players, painted and then etched in 1920, are made up chaotically of spare parts including a metal jawbone carefully labelled and authenticated as a Dix product bearing the inventor’s portrait (lot 3).
Dix himself, with his military bearing and unflinching outlook, is always a sign of stability. The players use traditional German cards marked by acorns, hearts, leaves and bells. Local viewers would have known the numbering and scoring system by heart. The billiards players, etched for the same set of 11 in 1920, are more orderly, the three players monitored by two observers there to verify the scoring which is plain to see written up on a board to the right (lot 2).
Everything in the billiard hall is accounted for: five beer glasses for the five participants, for example, as well as a cosmic indicator in the shape of a globe lamp.
Dix, after his time in the army, admired experience as embodied in die Kupplerin, the manageress of a brothel (lot 30). He was also, despite his cast-iron countenance, a romantic charmed by tough sea-faring men and by daring circus women, acrobats, trick-riders and lion-tamers, such as la Dompteuse, whom he would have seen at the famous Sarrasini Circus in Dresden (lot 31). As the war receded, Dix became aware of fashion as a disguise.
‘’The woman with the heron’s feather in her hat’’ (Dame und Reiher) is a lithograph from 1923, the year in which he left Dresden for Düsseldorf (lot 27). By then Dix was becoming aware of a new sophisticated, stylish look rehearsed in his well-known painting Am Schonheit of 1922 (‘’To Beauty’’) where he presented himself in a dance hall in face-powder, rouge and a new American suit. By then he was known to the children of family friends as ONKEL JIMMY who danced ‘’the shimmy’’ – a Mae West introduction in 1919.