A century after Otto Dix’s First World War painting The Trench (1923) provoked an outcry when it was displayed at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, the institution's successor, the Germany Academy of Arts, is opening to the public the inventory of the artist's works that he compiled—somewhat grudgingly.
The academy is not able to show The Trench, which has been missing, feared destroyed, since the Second World War. But it can display a black-and-white photograph, thanks to the meticulous records that Dix made of his works. It was stuck onto the back of an index card, just one document in the 16 metres of archive material now available to researchers and catalogued in the academy’s online database.
The Otto Dix Foundation, created by the artist’s widow Martha Dix in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, entrusted Dix’s estate to the academy. It includes 4,000 index cards of his works, around 300 letters to the artist, catalogues and publications that include mention of exhibitions of his work and even his paintbox containing all his equipment, which is on show in a vitrine at the Academy of Arts.
The index cards are valuable for art historians and provenance researchers because they include not only details such as measurements and media used, but also information on ownership, including what was seized by the Nazis in their campaign against “degenerate” Modern art and works like The Trench that went missing in the war, says Werner Heegewaldt, the director of the Academy of Arts’ archive.
“It’s clear that Dix didn’t like doing this work much but he realised it was important to do it,” Heegewaldt says. In a May 1963 letter to a restorer friend, Dix wrote that he had been “bone idle for months and I am doing nothing at all”, and in a “boring state of inner emptiness”. He added that the only thing he could manage was work on his archive. “It’s enough to make you puke,” he wrote.
The Academy of Arts is holding a reading of letters and documents from the archive today to mark both the opening of the archive and the centennial of the exhibition of The Trench.
Known as one of the most vivid depictions of the horrors of war, the painting showed a First World War trench after a bombardment with mutilated bodies, torn limbs and brains pouring out of skulls.
In the year it was shown at the Prussian Academy of Arts, the famous critic Julius Meier-Graefe wrote that it was “not just badly painted but disgracefully, with a determined pleasure in the detail”.
Others saw its power: Max Liebermann, then the president of the academy, described it in a private letter as “the personification of war” and “one of the most important works of the post-war era”.