In Totentanz anno 17 (Hohe Toter Mann) (Dance of death 1917 – Dead Man’s Hill), plate number 19 from Otto Dix’s cycle Der Krieg (War, 1924) one immediately notices the intense tonal contrasts of the etching, a stark depiction of the black and white nature of war. Although it quickly veers to a much cliched ‘good versus evil’ trajectory, Dix has managed to deepen the piece beyond the malevolent, innocent-stripping tale of war we have all witnessed through countless forms of re-telling in art and has rather portrayed an insider’s observation of war where there are no clear sides, no obvious winners, no patriotism and no sentiment.
All we are given is a myriad of dismembered bodies tangled together in a criss-crossing of barbed wire fencing. It all seems too dreamlike that it indeed has to be real. Dix managed to capture this contrast through a technique known as aquatint. To achieve this particles of rosin are dusted onto the etching plate and, through heat, are fused onto it, the acid then biting the plate between them to give an even tone. Dix intended to create four main tones, those being white, black and two tones of grey.
The contrast is phenomenal, the white concentrated in the centre comes across as a toasty warm glow, a somewhat macabre statement as the light illuminating the corpses could only be coming from a bomb blast or a small fire created from one. Strangely the etching can be vaguely compared to a still from Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). On surface the comparison is rather obvious, the contrast created by the machinery is quite similar to that of Dix’s, but when you consider the workings of a machine they almost assimilate the workings of a war.
Separate pieces of different sizes and rankings, working together or apart all trying to achieve a similar outcome which, through all the various trappings, errors and exhaustions can seem rather redundant and inane. All that work for what? In the Der Krieg cycle Dix wasn’t so much making a comment about man’s involvement in war but more so the ramifications of the industrial age and the effects modern machines and weaponry had on mankind during that age.
It is very apparent that Dix has modelled his Der Krieg cycle on Goya’s Les Desatres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War, 1863) with Dix himself admitting that Goya’s equally pertinent story-board of war was a huge influence, however there are immediate differences though between the two depictions. Goya’s artworks focus more intently on person to person conflict, man against fellow man, whereas Dix’s prints are largely focussed on the mass destruction inflicted by modern weapons of war, not only on man but also on nature such as horses and other animals of war and the landscape of war.
Goya has also taken a somewhat gothic and poetic position with his pieces, while quite dark and sombre many of the stories created contain occasional acts of heroism and are very emotional and dramatic scenes. Dix on the other hand has created more of an overall sober look at life and death in the trenches, his cycle is more of a meditation of war and all it encumbers concentrating on the ambience and feel of it’s destruction as opposed to the stories it can tell. It is also interesting to note that Dix was channelling his intention from first hand experience, being a soldier (initially an enthusiastic one) in the First World War.
Goya however was painting from second hand stories and images that he had both heard and seen. This quite evidently can be seen in Dix’s work and his attitude “I did not paint art to prevent war. I would never have been so arrogant. I painted them to exorcise the experience of war. All art is about exorcism”. This isn’t to say that Goya’s works are of any less importance but Dix had real reason to reconstruct the depravity of war for others to see as he was a participant of war rather than just an observer.