ARTS IN ACTION: COMMENTARY // Friday, Sept 29 11:10am-12:15pm (Rm 201)
The Great War and the “Good Fight:” Visualizing an Existential Crisis of Faith in Otto Dix’s War Triptych
In the wake of the carnage and destruction wrought during World War I and in light of Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential philosophy, some in Germany experienced a crisis of faith. As a soldier during the war, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) artist Otto Dix experienced the devastation of the war firsthand and he created brutal images of dead soldiers and war cripples that shocked society during Germany’s chaotic Weimar Republic (1918-1933). Dix, who carried both the Bible and one of Nietzsche’s works with him when he went to war, had an ambivalent relationship with Christianity that was complicated by his Nietzschean cynicism. In his famed Der Krieg (War) triptych of 1929-1932, which features three panels and a predella depicting unflinching scenes of the horrors of trench warfare, Dix utilized the format of a winged altarpiece to visually reinterpret Christian themes of death, resurrection and salvation through a Nietzschean lens by foregrounding the cycle of life, death, and rebirth which aligns with the philosopher’s notion of “eternal recurrence.” He purposefully referenced well-known Christian religious art, such as Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece of 1515, to critically comment on the apparent senselessness of the war and the growing disillusionment with official government propaganda which claimed German soldiers were martyrs for a just cause. In contrast to Christian altarpieces foregrounding beliefs in hope and redemption, Dix’s work elevates humanity at the expense of the divine by substituting the Nietzschean Übermensch for Christ and by asserting the supposed finality of death. However, despite Dix’s apparent existential bravado, certain telling remarks, recurring nightmares, and his late paintings of Christian saints reveal a fear of death and a potential dissatisfaction with the pessimistic philosophy he substituted for religious faith.
Kaia L. Magnusen, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Texas – Tyler. She received her doctorate in art history from Rutgers University, her master’s degree in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and her bachelor’s degree in art history and foreign languages from Wheaton College. She has published and presented on the art of Otto Dix and Caspar David Friedrich and her research interests include images of women, constructions of “deviant” femininity, representations of dance, visualizations of death, and depictions of the physical and mental manifestations of illness.