Unpacking a painting

Last week I talked about understanding art, and pondered how it is that we come to appreciate it. I don’t have a background in the subject, but whilst doing my History special subject on the German Reformation I enjoyed learning to understand woodcuts and images. I want to carry on developing this skill, and am going to try and make some sense of Otto Dix’s War Triptych. It was painted between 1929 and 1932, and takes the Great War as its subject. The text that follows is the result of some research and a little own knowledge.


Let’s start by looking at the form of the painting. The work is made up of three main panels – a ‘triptych’. Very popular in medieval times, this form was usually used to make altarpieces. Being placed by the altar, altarpieces were located at the focal point of worship and holiness, and they usually depicted events or figures central to the Christian faith. So the form of the work throws up thoughts of Christian ideals (martyrdom and sainthood), religious ritual, and the process of salvation (the mass, enacted on the altar, is the re-enactment of Christ’s sacrificial act that led to the salvation of mankind, achieving contact with the divine through the most intense personal suffering and destruction).

So before we even look at the content of the painting, its very form throws up ideas in our minds. We should be mindful of this deeply religious setting when we examine the detail of the work.

Scanning the content of the painting, the central panel depicts a scene of carnage and decomposition. Entrails ooze into the mud; another figure is riddled with bullet holes. The horrible, churned-up landscape and the destroyed soldiers merge together, decaying into disgusting, undignified oblivion. In the left-hand panel, soldiers approach the front; to the right, two figures make their way back.

I want to take a closer look at the bullet-ridden figure in the right of the central panel. I’ve read that he relates to the Isenheim Altarpiece, so that’s where we’re going to look next.

The Isenheim Altarpiece, 1505-15, by German artist Matthias Grünewald, was painted for the monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. The monks there were known for their treatment of skin diseases, and the Christ in this altarpiece has infected skin. The figure being lowered into the tomb in the bottom panel looks particularly horriffic.

To make matters more complicated, the Isenheim Altarpiece could be set-up in two other configurations, displaying different images. Here’s the second:

The second configuration has Mary bathing Christ at the centre. There’s an element of flattery towards the monks here, equating their work at the monastery with that of Mary tending to Christ. The lower panel in this configuration is the same as in the first, depicting the diseased body of Christ being placed in the tomb. But in this configuration, spiritual cleansing is the dominant power. The far left panel shows the Anunciation – the moment Mary was told by the archangel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus Christ – and the far right panel shows a cleansed Christ rising from the dead. Whilst Christ lies dead and diseased at the bottom of the triptych, his flesh and spirit have a greater destination than this. They are located above this panel, and these images are therefore more important and powerful than the lower down, smaller image. Christ’s death and corporeal humiliation was only temporary. He attained triumphant resurrection.

The Isenheim Altarpiece therefore dwells on the acute suffering of the flesh, but ultimately sees the body as nurtured and spiritually enlivened to resurrection. The wretched, corporeal flesh can be nurtured and healed to resurrection.

This all relates to the bullet-ridden figure, his wounds mirroring the precise piercings of Christ at the crucifixion, and the ghastly tone of his flesh mirror’s Christ’s grim flesh in the altarpiece. It also relates to the chilling, dormant figures on the bottom panel, who resemble the utterly mortal Christ in Holbein the Younger’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.

I see no room in the War Triptych for maternal or spiritual cleansing. These wretched figures are a long way from home and any nurturing forces. They are dead, lost in the mud, rotting under a malicious, burning sky. Can any goodness really rise out of this utterly destroyed environment? Can life – can God – continue? Perhaps the skeletal corpse pointing to the right has an answer. The central figure on the right panel has shed his military apparatus. Instead of inflicting carnage, his hands are used to help his comrade away from the destruction. A light shines on them both, like the resurrected Christ in the Isenheim Altarpiece. But they’re grounded and wounded, and thoroughly human. There’s no mother figure here, and no spiritual force to pluck the unlucky majority from their muddy tombs. The two that survive do so together as men. There is no other way. If there’s going to be resurrection from the carnage of the Great War, man must achieve it under his own power.

This analysis suggests that the painting’s about the demolition and smashing up of centuries of religious certainty in the face of the mechanised destruction of the Great War, but of how something divine lives on in the individual. But the prospect for salvation is pretty meagre. A troop of soldiers enter on the left, but only two survive on the right. Most of us are destined for spiritual and physical carnage.

But how do I know that any of what I’ve said is right? There are details in this painting, and in the ones it supposedly references, that I have not covered. It could be read differently. And how can we even be sure which works are referenced by the painting, and what the meaning and significance of these references was supposed to be?
In a way, this doesn’t matter. Even if I’ve not recreated the meaning that Dix intended, I’ve ended up thinking and feeling about death, salvation and humanity. And those thoughts and feelings are legitimate even if they are different to what Dix was thinking and feeling.

I wish I had a higher resolution image, or could see the work first-hand (it’s in the Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister, Dresden), as I’d love to study the expression of the lead figure in the right-hand image. How did he manage to survive, and what does he feel? What does he do now?

I’m going to write a piece about a different medium and its use of references. Hip-hop music doesn’t suffer from these complications, as it is clear when a reference is made. At some point I’ll write a post about how to make sense of sampling in hip-hop, as it’s an absolutely beautiful medium once you start to think about it.

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4 Responses to Unpacking a painting

  1. Pingback: The future of art – why digitization is a necessity | Reflections

  2. Leigh says:

    It is said that the figure on the right is a portrait of Dix himself.

  3. Daniel Cristancho says:

    Why are catholic artists in the habit of painting Christ as some skinny, puny, sickly wimp? My 90 lb. grandmother has more muscle than the images of Christ in these paintings. He was a carpenter, a working man lifting heavy pieces of timber and wielding a hammer daily. He walked everyday and ate a healthy Jewish diet. These paintings don’t do our Lord and Savior any justice.

    • Good point. I imagine these depictions are to convey the extreme suffering he endured to redeem mankind. In earlier centuries Christ was depicted as strong, even in crucifixion; but in later art, his humanity and suffering were made more apparent. So I guess it’s for theological/devotional reasons rather than strict accuracy.

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