In 1920, the German artist Otto Dix, an eager volunteer who fought for his country and was wounded multiple times, produced four paintings of disabled veterans. In each of these paintings, the men, mutilated and dismembered by war are missing multiple limbs. Although these paintings are often referred to as the “prosthesis-wearers series,” what is striking is not the presence of prosthetic limbs but the absence of replacement arms or legs. Dix said, “War is something so animal-like: hunger, lice, slime, these crazy sounds.” He continued, “War was something horrible, but nonetheless something powerful.” Dix spoke of the war as if it were a unique experience, but one that, as an artist and a student of human nature, he did not regret. “Under no circumstances could I miss it! It is necessary to see people in this unchained condition in order to know something about man.”
The veteran of The Match Seller I (1920) is blind; he has lost his arms and his missing legs were replaced by two pegs. In Prague Street, Dedicated to My Contemporaries (1920), two disabled veterans sit, like The Match Seller, on the sidewalk, begging in front of shop windows displaying commodities for the able-bodied, with one shop offering artificial limbs available to those who can afford them. War Cripples (1920) was also known as 45% Work Capacity, a term that indicated how benefits were allocated: on the amount of the body lost to the war. The “cripples” are four veterans, torn apart in body and mind, marching down the street, an ordinary sight in Germany after the war.
Although the painter Otto Dix, who dedicated his post war work to calling attention of the German people to the plight of returning soldiers, insisting upon showing the social and political condition of those brave and neglected men, the public did not want to see these unfortunate victims, not on the streets and not in art. The Dresden Stadtmuseum purchased War Cripples but put the painting out of sight, until the Nazis later destroyed the painting, as they did with any work of art that had an anti-war message. We were left with a black and white image of government failure to attend to the needs of the military, even those with only a 45% “Work Capacity.” According to Dennis Crockett in German Post-Expressionism : The Art of the Great Disorder 1918-1924, Dix “worked like a lunatic” in 1920 and produced The Trench, a very large work, and The Barricade. But his famous four paintings came about as a reaction to “The enormous number of maimed veterans peddling or begging on the streets of every German city was constant reminder of the war..The war may still have been too close in 1920 for artist-veterans to have come to terms with their personal experiences. By dealing with maimed veterans, Dix could displace his personal experience yet still vent his unspeakable frustration..”
The most famous of the quartet of prosthesis-wearers by Dix is perhaps The Scat Players (Die Skatspieler), showing a painful card game carried on by soldiers. Skat is a game of trickery rather than skill. According to Stephen Kinzer, “After coming across three mutilated veterans playing skat in the back room of a Dresden cafe one day, he retired to a studio in the art school he was attending and painted The Skat Players. The first impression the picture makes is grotesque. The three players are horribly disfigured, and portrayed in the surreal style Dix often favored. Only upon closer examination does the viewer note that this is not simply a painting but a collage. The cards the players hold are real, pasted onto the canvas. Newspapers above their heads are also real, and the blue jacket worn by one of the players is actual cloth.”
it is interesting that the wounded veterans, offices all, still proudly wearing their medals, are playing by themselves, suggesting that they can be comfortable only in the company of others like themselves. The artist saw them playing in a “back room,” out of view of the main room of the café. And yet they are not exactly exiled in Dix’s painting. He shows a collage of current newspapers, suggests that the players have retired to a reading room. The table and chairs and the coat rack in the background have more legs and arms than the men, who are put together from scraps of collage, an artistic act analogous to the patchwork faces and bodies. In Disability in Twentieth-century German Culture, Carol Poore Interprets the painting as “a freak show” in its effect because of the “radically negative manner as representatives of the war machine. The grotesqueness of their prostheses as representatives of the war machine. The grotesqueness of their prostheses marks them with bitter irony as monstrous holdover of an authoritarian system. They are still dyed-in-the-wool militarists, and they keep on playing the game the way they have always played it.”
However militaristic these officers may have been at the beginning of the Great War, they ended the War as victims of their own patriotism. One has a sense that Dix, the artist, sees in them, what he could have been had he been less lucky. Just as these men are memory fragments, Dix put these memories together by collaging the card players as if he were attempting to make them whole again. An impossible task. The holder of the Iron Cross has neatly parted hair, undoubtedly a tribute to his skillful use of his prosthetic arm. The officer with one leg is able to hold his cards in his foot and he plays cards while blind and deaf, attempting to hear with his ear trumpet. This painful painting is a vivid narrative of catastrophic facial wounds and missing limbs and of bodies that survive after they have been scythed in half by machine guns or blasted by artillery. Dix signed this work on the lower jaw prosthetic of the soldier on the right with his own name, his own photograph and an inscription reading “Lower jaw: prosthesis brand: Dix. (“Unterkieler. ProtheseMake: Dix”) Only genuine with the photograph of the inventor.” In Prosthetic Pedagogy of Art, The: Embodied Research and Practice, Charles R. Garoian described the painting as “a cynical representation of how the human body is both the supplier and the recipient of the scheming brutality of political power..” He described the card players as “apparent veterans of World War I with “official standing”..”having been tricked into believing that World War I would end all wars, engage in their own folly as they try to trick each other in the card game by using their prosthetics to stack the deck, deceive and cheat one another.”
The date of this series, 1920, is significant indicating that Dix was working only two years after the end of the war. The fact that this is not a pure painting but a painting upon which many parts–fabric, newspapers, glass, and so on– were grafted, like skin on a ruined face, suggests that Dix was attempting to “build” the men the same way they had been reconstructed in the hospital.
In her article on this painting, Anne Marno discussed The Skat Players and the use of collage in relation to the artists of Berlin Dada. The artists in Berlin will be discussed in another chapter but there is another discourse that this work and the other paintings in the series refers to. As Marno pointed out, “Between 1910 and 1915, illness and disability were favorite subjects of the Expressionists.” However, before the Great War, these topics were metaphors for the state of the wider society. Although post war artists will again use illness as a metaphor, the context is quite different. Everywhere on the streets, in full view of a reluctant public, were the truly wounded and totally injured, and these damages were very real.
Marno noted that “In visual arts of World War I and in the post-war period, issues such as war injuries and disability were widely represented in works of art. In visual arts (and in literature) of the Weimar Republic, the war-disabled body became an object of a discourse with specific goals and characteristic attributes..In many works by progressive or politically self-oriented artists, the artistic representation of war disability functioned as an accusation of the capitalist system and militarism of Germany. The disabled individual with crutches, whose leg or legs were amputated, became an especially iconic motif in Weimar art. Besides serious bodily or psychological injuries, artists emphasized the social distress of the disabled veterans, who often are presented as beggars—reduced to a very low socioeconomic state—to attack the military system, which produced this misery. Moreover, the presentation of disabled veterans by many visual artists and writers served to accuse the veterans themselves: the artists present them cynically as unteachable and close to the militarists, industrialists, and the agents of the bourgeoisie, who were responsible for the war and the social disorder.”
In the next chapter, the problem of psychology and wounds will be discussed, and, in light of the horrific mutilation of the soldiers in The Skat Players, it is important to point out that these individuals are playing cards in public. All of the disabled soldiers in the “prosthesis series” are out in the streets, making themselves visible as if in a deliberate attempt to shame the neglectful public. In fact, as Jason Crouthamel and Peter Leese wrote in their introduction to Psychological Trauma and the Legacies of the First World War, “One of the ways in which traumatized men exerted agency was by resisting sterilized representations of their horrifying wounds. Images of traumatized men were made famous in interwar art by Otto Dix and George Grosz. In their expressionist representations of mutilated men, they highlighted the emotional scars that persisted after the war, and they shocked audiences with the brutal reality of the war’s physical and psychological wounds. Men with terrifying facial injuries were even part of the French delegation of war victims at the Treaty of Versailles, where they served as visual evidence of the nation’s trauma.”
In England, such soldiers would take care to hide themselves and shield themselves from the horrified gaze of passersby, but Dix places his actors on an urban stage, marching them in front of the viewer. In an interesting passage Marno foregrounded the actual conditions under which these “beggars” lived. True, the veterans were visible but they were subjects of a relentless government campaign to rehabilitate them.
She wrote, “Already during the war, the amputee veteran was the focus of social welfare, with the objective of social reintegration after elaborate surgical procedures and hospital stays. Attention was given especially to reintegration into employment, and also to keep pension claims low. Because of their extensive injuries, disabled veterans had to endure countless reconstructive and disciplining measures (such as drills and gymnastic exercises) on their bodies, in addition to more major surgical interventions–for example, for initial amputations following injury–they underwent countless follow-up operations. These interventions and the equipment with appropriate prostheses should have not only secured survival and produced a bearable health status, but also served to optimized the usefulness of the veterans in everyday life and work.”
In other words, all evidence to the contrary, rehabilitating such serious injuries was often impossible, especially when coupled with post traumatic stress syndrome or “shell shock.” There is little compassion in this series by Dix, for it is too soon for pity. This is a time for anger, and the soldiers remain bit players in the larger political theme of governmental culpability in the slaughter of millions of young men. The pacifist theme, the anti-war message may have been part of the German avant-garde culture of the 1920s, but forces were gathering on the right wing that would eventually take power ,with the intention of re-fighting the Great War and winning this time. In 1937, Otto Dix was labeled a “Degenerate Artist” by Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader of the Third Reich. Dix was forced out of his job as professor at the Academy of Arts in Dresden, and he retired to “inner exile.”
In 1995, The Skat Players came home to Berlin. Since it was painted in 1920, it had been in private hands and resurfaced over fifty years later, it was shipped to New York to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York. The German museum community was shocked and immediately began raising money to purchase the now-valuable painting. The National Gallery of Berlin had state money and began adding to it through contributions by citizens. by skat tournaments, an art auction, and an benefit ballet “Dix: Eros and Death.” This funding drive was fueled by the strong belief that The Skat Players belonged in Berlin. As the chairman of the Friends of the National Gallery, Peter Raue, said, “..’The Skat Players’ belongs in Berlin. It is probably the most important antiwar picture ever produced by a German artist. It epitomizes Germany’s fate..”The National Gallery already owns ‘Pillars of Society’ by George Grosz. That picture shows the war-makers: the priest who blesses weapons, the publisher who mobilizes the right-wing press, the officers who march off to the battlefield. Otto Dix answers by showing the effects of war: the crippled with ruined faces and prostheses, without arms and legs. You could not imagine a more magnificent dialogue than we will have when we hang these two pictures on the wall together.” The family that owned the painting agreed to reduce its price by 10% and the important collector of German art, Ronald Lauder, agreed to not bid against the National Gallery. Once despised as a reminder of the grave costs of war to the German people, The Skat Players returned, unlike its soldiers, with honor. As Dieter Honisch, director of the National Gallery, said, “This picture is where it belongs, in the city from which so much suffering was inflicted on so many millions of people. Its message is unmistakable: Never again war.”