Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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Otto Dix, Triptychon Der Krieg (War Triptych), 1929-32, tempera on wood, central panel 204 x 204 cm, side panels 204 x 102 cm each, Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister, Dresden.

© SESAM, Paris, 1998.

The death

99 - Otto Dix

Between 1920 and 1923, Dix painted Der Schützengraben (The Trench) for purchase by the Museum of Cologne, which however had to back down in the face of public protest, before the painting was seized by the Nazis in 1933, and probably destroyed. The preceding year, Dix had produced what was to remain surely the most important painting to come out of the Great War: a triptych composed according to the canons of the old German masters. The central panel is a reworking of The Trench, a horrific vision where a soldier, his face covered by a gas mask, is left the sole survivor in a collapsed trench near an overturned dugout. Corpses are in their final stages of decomposition, with a skeleton still hanging from the branch of a tree. The side panels depict two men leaving for the front and two wounded men returning. In the foreground, laid out under tent canvases are some men asleep, or maybe they are dead.
Dix introduces pictorial references to Grünewald, Altdorfer and Holbein. The triptych, painted on wood, is in their style, with a wealth of realistic detail. Whilst the preparatory sketches only set out the silhouettes and their construction, the triptych itself takes illusion to intolerable levels of morbidity with putrefied flesh, worms and gangrene. The legs of one dead man are like Christ's limbs in the Isenheim altarpiece covered with blisters and purulent wounds. The space is brimming with corpses, debris, and maimed forms, and run through with spiked vertical lines. Everything about this painting is disturbing, including the sky with its swirling reddish clouds reminiscent of Altdörfer's Battle of Alexander, and the sign of a catastrophe that has extended its empire over the whole of nature.

99-Dix" It started to drizzle. I managed to draw off some muddy water in my helmet. I had lost all sense of direction and I couldn't work out exactly where the line of the front was. There were strings of shell-holes everywhere, each one bigger than the last, and from the bottom of these hollow ditches we could only see clay walls and grey sky. There was a storm brewing; the thunder claps were drowned by the sound of a fresh burst of rolling fire. I flattened myself against the side of the crater. A mound of clay hit me in the shoulder and some heavy pieces of shrapnel flew over my head. I gradually lost all notion of time, I didn't know whether it was morning or evening. "

Ernst Jünger, Storms of Steel.