A human face in anguish, with hands raised to his cheeks, looks out from the center of a visual field full of slashing diagonals and explosive triangles of color. On the left side, smoke billows.
Otto Dix's "Artillery Battle" is a study in the horrible experience of mechanized warfare in World War I. The painting depicts how it felt to be powerless, completely at the mercy of the mighty machines of war, like artillery.
March 28, 2009
When World War I erupted, Dix enthusiastically volunteered for the German Army and served as an artilleryman and machine gunner, eventually rising to the rank of sergeant. In Artillery Battle, he uses jarring colors and the fractured space of Cubism to represent the visual cacophony that results from a barrage of gunfire. Intersecting yellow and blue diagonals both frame and cage in the figure at center, whose expression is one of abject terror, conveying the claustrophobia and panic soldiers experienced under massive bombardment in their grave-like trenches.
Of the war Dix said, “[it] was a horrible thing, but there was something tremendous about it too. I didn’t want to miss it at any price. You have to have seen human beings in this unleashed state to know what human nature is.” The images that filled his sketchbooks, done in a brutal realist style that distorted appearances to emphasize the ugliness of war, show the tremendous price Dix paid in order to know firsthand the extent of man’s inhumanity.
Three center female figures with exposed breasts and halos. Entire picture composed of overlapping U- or V-shaped charcoal strokes.
20th-century version of the traditional presentation of Saint Anne, often portrayed with the Holy Family, or with the Virgin Mary and child (see Leonardo da Vinci, "The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist," 1499-1500, The National Gallery, London).
Holy Anne with Two Others (Hl. Anna selbdritt)
Charcoal on paper
Gift of the Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection, 2007/2.92
Expressionists conducted other kinds of experiments with line and the human form, besides direct figure study. Otto Dix, known for his later Neue Sachlichkeit “realistic” and grotesque renderings of war’s violence and its resulting human carnage, filled his early work with linear reinventions of canonical artistic works and stories. Here a reinterpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne is composed almost entirely out of the U-shaped lines that define the figures’ breasts. At times elongated, and sometimes strongly angled, this U shape can even be seen (inverted) in the outline of the figural trio.