Lost Masterpieces

The Unknown Fate of The Painting That Was Too Dangerous For Hitler

Otto Dix's painting, 'The Trench,' which graphically showed the horrors of World War I, featured in an exhibition of works the Nazis deemed 'degenerate.' Then it went missing.

On July 19, 1937, the Nazis staged the grand opening of the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich.

For four months, they displayed works of art deemed unacceptable in the society envisioned by the new regime. Among the now unwelcome forms of artistic mastery were anything that reeked of modernism or expressionism, all works by Jewish artists, and any subjects considered abhorrent to or critical of the Nazi world order.

A sign on the wall of the exhibition quoted Hitler from a rally two years earlier: "It is not the mission of art to wallow in filth for filth's sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength.”

With two strikes against it as both an Expressionist painting and one that dealt in the ugly horrors of war, “The Trench” by Otto Dix was prominently displayed among the 650 works deemed “degenerate.”

For anyone with any sense of alarm about the impending cruelty that was about to be unleashed by the Nazis, “The Trench” would have been a foreboding image screaming out a warning from where it hung helplessly on the wall before it disappeared forever.

Otto Dix was born in 1891 to humble beginnings, but his artistic talent was quickly apparent. It eventually led him to the cosmopolitan city of Dresden, where he was studying at an art school when World War I broke out. The 23-year-old artist enlisted in the German army.

Who knows what drove him to sign up—a patriotic need to fight for his country, a desire to see the world, an urge to participate in the biggest event of the day—but one can imagine that the realities of war quickly dispelled whatever illusions he once had.

For four years Dix served as an artilleryman, spending his days sketching what he saw from the trenches that became his home when he wasn’t dodging death or raining it down on his enemies in return. When a fellow soldier once asked why he continued to draw, he reportedly said, “It’s fun to draw in this tedious slaughter.”

“I had to experience all of that very precisely. I wanted to,” Dix said later of his decision to enlist. “In other words, I’m not a pacifist at all. Or maybe I was a curious person. I had to see it all for myself. I am such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that that’s the way it is.”

When the war ended in 1918, Dix returned home and picked his art career back up. But now he had a new subject; he wanted to portray the unspeakable horrors that he had witnessed in a style of vivid realism that had not previously been matched in art.

In the decade that followed, Dix was not only a member of a new generation of German artists who were developing an original style of German expressionism that would come to be called the new objectivity, he was also pushing the boundaries within that group.

“Dix comes along like a natural disaster: outrageous, inexplicably devastating, like the explosion of a volcano,” critic Paul Ferdinand Schmidt said of the artist at the time. “One never knows what to expect from this wild man.”

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One of his most impactful projects was a series of 50 etchings that he produced in a collection that he called “The War.”

Nothing was off limits for Dix. In a style that a New York Times obituary would later describe as “a realism bordering on fanaticism,” Dix portrayed soldiers pierced by barbed wire, men with rotting flesh, and every gory details of death and decay on the battlefield. The world he portrays is perennially dark, unimaginably gruesome, and stripped of all humanity.

“There is neither relief nor redemption here,” Michael Berenson wrote in The New York Times in 1989 when some of the etchings went on view at The New York Public Library. “Even when it is daylight, it is night. When soldiers are carousing, they are throwing up. When eyes are open, they do not see. When soldiers are on leave, survival of the fittest is still law. The land, like the body, is wounded…This is a world that has lost its soul.”

It was a work on this same theme, but one on a very different scale, that proved to be too much for many viewers—including, later, the Nazis.

From 1920 to 1923, Dix worked on a giant oil painting on an over six-by-six-foot canvas that would be called “The Trench.”

In this painting, he depicted the horrifying death and destruction that was experienced in these deadly slices of land. In order to get the scene just right, Dix pulled from not only on his own memories of war and the photographs taken during that conflict, but also, according to an article written by Jennifer Mundy for the Tate Museum, on research visits he made to morgues to ensure that he was accurately depicting these visions of death and decay.

“In the cold, sallow, ghostly light of dawn…a trench appears into which has just fallen a devastating bombardment…the trench is filled up with hideously mutilated bodies and human fragments. From open skulls brains gush like thick red groats; torn-up limbs, intestines, shreds of uniforms, artillery shells form a vile heap,” Mundy quotes a critic at the time as saying.

The painting was purchased by a museum in Cologne in 1923 and quickly put on display—to the almost immediate shock and outrage of local citizens.

The horrifying reality that Dix was forcing his fellow Germans to confront was too much for a country that was trying to move on from a war that had only ended five years prior. In short, the universal outcry deemed the painting too accurate, and ruled that, in this case, realism was not a redeeming quality.

While many artists stuck up for Dix, the public verdict had been delivered: “The Trench” was not acceptable for public consumption. The piece was returned to the artist and the museum director who had purchased it submitted his resignation.

But that was not the end of the story for “The Trench.” The painting went on to star in an exhibition protesting war that made the rounds of several German cities, and it was purchased in 1928 by another brave museum director, this time in Dresden.

Once in its new home, however, it was confined to storage, where it stayed indefinitely under the auspices of restoration work. (The director later reportedly said that it was still too controversial a piece to be shown.)

Despite the negative reception of “The Trench,” Dix didn’t give up on his theme. He continued to create works that dealt with the realities of war portrayed in his no-holds-barred, hyper-realistic style. His work earned him a teaching position at the same Dresden art academy that he had attended.

But in 1933, that all changed when Hitler suddenly came to power. Almost instantly, Dix became persona non grata in Germany. He was fired from his job and around 260 of his works were confiscated from around the country and deemed “degenerate.”

While many of Dix’s contemporary artists fled the country for England and the United States, Dix chose to stay behind despite the new regime’s contempt for him. He imposed something of an “internal exile” on himself and focused his work on landscapes and religious paintings (in no uncertain terms, he had been banned from continuing his work on the subject of war).

“'To migrate was just not my style. In 1939, I locked myself up. I took refuge in the countryside and painted and painted. I wanted to know nothing about the war,” Dix said of this decision. “Today, I think I was right. To flee is always a mistake.’'

Four years after the Nazis came to power, they opened their now infamous exhibition of the works that they believe should henceforward no longer be exhibited—something of an anti-public relations maneuver.

Eight of Dix’s paintings had the dubious distinction of being included among the dangerous degenerates that had the potential to corrupt the pure German psyche.

It is reported that Hitler, on a tour of the exhibition, observed, “It’s a pity one cannot lock up people like that,” while standing in front of one of Dix’s works.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition closed on November 30, 1937. Two years later in 1939, a large bonfire was built and a massive burning of modernist works of art was staged.

It was generally believed that “The Trench” was among these that met their fiery end. But later, an invoice was discovered that revealed that the following January, the painting was sold for $200 to the art dealer Bernhard Boehmer. This was not an uncommon fate for some works deemed “degenerate,” which were sold to raise money rather than destroyed in an act of moral protest.

But from there, the trail goes cold and no trace of the piece has been found since. It is believed to have been eventually destroyed.

For Dix’s part, he may have sequestered himself in a remote corner of Germany, but he didn’t quite manage to avoid the second major war of his lifetime. In 1945, he was drafted into a “People’s Defense Unit” and sent to fight, where he was promptly captured by the French.

After the war, he settled down to rebuild his art career once again in Germany, but this time, his interest stayed on the more mild religious subjects that had captured his attention during the war years.

Despite this change in subject matter and the loss of works like “The Trench,” the forceful message of Dix’s work remains. In 1937, the art critic Edward Alden Jewell made some prescient observations in a review he wrote of an exhibition of several of the etchings from Dix’s “The War” series on display in the Museum of Modern Art.

“It would be a very good thing were all of them to be exhibited again and again. As anti-war propaganda they constitute about the most persuasive material that could be presented,” Jewell wrote. “It might be well were these terrific impressions, so full of pain and pity and of contempt, also, for the forces responsible—it might be well could we see them enlarged to the proportions of the mural and have them emblazoned upon our walls, lest America some day be tempted to descend from her present white ideal of peace.”

Four years later, America—and the rest of the world—would be embroiled in the thick of another deadly war.