Much of Otto Dix’s (1891-1969) artistic practice reflects the traumatic effects of distinct socio-historical experiences: the brutality and inhumanity of the First World War, the depravities of a decadent Weimar society, the oppressive cultural policies of the Third Reich, the horrors of World War II, and the post-war division of Germany into two states, East and West. This paper explores Dix’s late works, considering his use of allegory following the National Socialists’ rise to power and through the postwar period. In order to surmise the functional significance of allegory, it reads Dix’s paintings in light of Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) influential book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1925). Benjamin theorizes that allegory is not merely an “illustrative technique” but rather “a form of expression”; it is not simply a representational mode of modernism but also a modern sensibility. Allegory is both the literal and symbolic representation of subject matter that illustrates the chaotic present and attempts to identify the ideal future by referring to, and appropriating, the past.
Because Benjamin’s text is itself a commentary not only on baroque plays but also “on the state of emergency that marked modern Germany from 1918 onwards,” that is, since it blurs the distinction between art and life, it can serve as an effective lens for a social-psychological character study of Dix. Many of the artist’s post-1933 paintings reveal his incongruous emotional state, echoing Benjamin’s dialectical sense of allegory as both a melancholic and redemptive mode. Perhaps they allude to Dix’s dystopian foresight about the devastation of humanity and culture to come, yet they can also be interpreted as his conviction in recovery. While at times doubtful of any transformation of contemporary social and political life, Dix maintained faith in the gradual fulfillment of his utopian vision.
Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (New York: Verso, 1977), 162.
Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 17.
- Event date
1 March 2014
- Date submitted
18 July 2022