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Art and Images in Psychiatry
September 2006

The Scat Players

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63(9):955. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.63.9.955

I had to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself; it's for that reason that I went to war . . . that I volunteered. . . . The war was a horrible thing but there was something tremendous about it, too. . . . You have to have seen human beings in this unleashed state to know what human nature is. . . .—Otto Dix, 19631(p22)

Otto Dix (1891-1969) carried 2 items in his knapsack during the First World War, Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844-1900) The Joyous (Gay) Science and the Bible.2 At age 20 years, like many young men of his era, he began to avidly read Nietzsche's writings seeking to affirm life, to cast traditional beliefs aside, and to experience the full range of life's joys, pain, and cruelty, to experience its depths.1-3 That is why he joined the German army at the outbreak of the war in 1914 and fought until it ended in 1918. He was repeatedly wounded and once was near death from a shrapnel wound to his neck. He rose to the rank of vice sergeant major and won the Iron Cross for valor. Dix observed everything, completing more than 300 drawings and sketches during his wartime service. He had studied at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts and honed his drawing talent on the battlefield between attacks.3

Otto Dix (1891-1969), German. Die Skatspieler (The Scat Players), 1920. Oil on canvas with photomontage and collage, 110 × 87 cm (435/16 × 34¼ in). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Otto Dix (1891-1969), German. Die Skatspieler (The Scat Players), 1920. Oil on canvas with photomontage and collage, 110 × 87 cm (435/16 × 34¼ in). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Unlike fellow Dada artist George Grosz,4 Dix was fully engaged in harrowing trench warfare. He was a machine gunner and saw action in both Western and Eastern fronts, fighting at Flanders Field and again at the Somme in northern France, where there were more than 1 million casualties (420 000 British, nearly 200 000 French, and more than 500 000 German men wounded or dead). The introduction of the machine gun had fundamentally changed war. No longer could troops find some semblance of heroism through engaging one another face to face. They hunkered down in trenches and faced the agonizing choice of standing up, moving out, and risk being shot or remaining in the trench and, periodically, risk being gassed.5 The Somme, where J.R.R. Tolkien fought, became the no man's land of Mordor in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

During the postwar years, Dix realistically portrayed the spectacle of war, its brutality, horror, and ugliness and its effects on those who fought. Hundreds of thousands of Germans were injured; there were 80 000 amputees (56 000 lost their legs and 24 000 lost arms). Dix said he simply collected his experiences of 1914-1918 and depicted them objectively. For at least 10 years after the war, he had recurrent dreams about crawling through ruined houses along passages he could barely pass through. But the general public seemed to quickly forget wartime suffering and to embrace material pleasures.3 He sought to rework his own experiences into a powerful indictment of the inhumanity of war and to awaken forces of resistance to it. He sought to remind others that the only true heroism lies in overcoming those beliefs that lead to war. He stressed the need to end such senseless killing. Dix was not so naïve as to believe he could prevent war; his goal was to exorcize, purging the emotions, to force out the devil that “possessed” people to dream of war or romanticize it. For him, all art was a form of exorcism. He attacked the indifference of civilians to the plight of disabled veterans. Misery paraded down the streets: veterans sat at corners, limped down avenues, became street peddlers, and were exploited by war profiteers. Their prosthetic needs were so great that the terms cyborg (a mixed being with human and mechanical parts) and homo protheticus have been used to describe them.

The Scat Players are disabled veterans playing scat, a popular card game in Germany suitable for 3 players. Dix combined photomontage (a collage technique that uses parts of photographs to construct a composite picture) and oil painting.3 This image is made contemporary by incorporating a photograph (of himself), real playing cards (bells, hearts, leaves, and acorns as suits), real newspapers, and real clothing material into the painting. Three men, by their bearing officers, sit at a marble table in a café or bar. Dresden daily newspapers hang on the wall behind them, suspended between a gas lamp with a skull face and an iron coat rack. One man (middle) with no arms or legs holds his cards with his teeth, a sex scene sketched on his skullcap. Another (left), with battered skull and a missing eye, hears through a cable attached to an ear trumpet resting on the table; he holds his cards with his right foot and reaches for a card with an artificial left hand. The third man (right), adorned with the Iron Cross, First Class, has no nose, lower jaw, or legs; he plays a jack with his metallic right hand. Dix's photograph is pasted on his left lower jaw as if to show that through this image, he speaks of their plight. This collage painting is part of the Dada Triptych along with The Barricade and Prague Street.6

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Dix was dismissed from his professorship at the Dresden Art Academy because his work “threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves.” At least 260 of his paintings were confiscated, labeled degenerate,3 and sold or destroyed. Dix was allowed to paint landscapes but nothing political. In 1939, he was charged in the plot to assassinate Hitler, briefly jailed, then released. He was again conscripted at the end of World War II and, for a short time until he was recognized, was a French prisoner of war. Dix's post–World War II paintings often were religious allegories, (Job [1946], Ecce Homo II [1948]) rather than social criticism; he painted the suffering of humanity and the suffering Christ—demanding a new humanism after war.3(p118)

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