Born in Eastern Germany, Dix moved to Dresden in 1910 to study art at the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts, but the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sidetracked his artistic ambitions. As his country sided with Austria in the rapidly escalating international conflict, Dix eagerly enlisted in the German army. He fought
as a gunner in the Russian and French trenches, earned an Iron Cross, and suffered a neck wound. Throughout all of this, he maintained journals during his service, constantly sketching the horrors around him. According to Norbert Wolf’s 2015 book Expressionism
, Dix completed almost 600 drawings and gouaches during his years as a soldier, between 1915 and 1918.
After the war, Dix returned to Dresden and resumed his art practice. Taking inspiration from his wartime activities, he created a print series called “Der Krieg” (“The War”) (1924). The disturbing black-and-white imagery includes such grotesqueries as a skeleton soldier reclining against a cliff with a long rifle aimed at his face
; a man
with a bloodied brain, eye, and hand, whose tongue lolls out of his mouth; and stormtroopers
with eerie masks reminiscent of horror-film villains. Starkness, despair, and inhumanity radiate from the series, which was consciously modeled on ’s
“The Disasters of War” prints (1810–20), which satirize a 19th-century Spanish conflict.
Throughout the 1920s, Dix maintained a skeptical attitude toward German post-war excesses
; during this decade, his subjects shifted from soldiers to seedy characters. Incorporating
techniques into his portraits, he used age-old styles (painting with egg tempera, for one) to render distinctly modern personalities. He created multiple pictures of prostitutes, including the 1925 painting Sailor and Girl
. Against a blaring red background, a pointy-nosed sailor with a devilish grin mounts a gray, bare-breasted prostitute. In 1995, Houghton Mifflin used the image as the cover for Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theater
, a bleak meditation on male sexuality—further confirming the work’s potent portrayal of diabolical lust. In perhaps Dix’s most famous portrait, of the journalist Sylvia von Harden(1926), the androgynous subject stares blankly beyond the frame while holding a half-smoked cigarette. Her long, spindly fingers unnerve as much as her expression.