One hundred years ago this month, President Woodrow Wilson announced the entry of the United States into World War I. The announcement signaled the arrival of the US onto the world stage, and with Congress’s vote on April 6, 1917 to declare war on Germany, there’s been no turning back — from US involvement in international wars, from the development of increasingly lethal and destructive weaponry, or from its mounting human carnage.
Earlier this year, former President George W. Bush published Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, a book of portraits he painted of wounded veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq (all of whom he had sent to war). Bush’s portraits represent a 21st-century version of the walking wounded: survival, trauma, and reconstructed lives. But in 1924, German artist Otto Dix — who was, unlike Bush, himself a war veteran — portrayed a different image of battlefield injury.
“Wounded Man (Autumn 1916, Bapaume),” from Dix’s portfolio of 50 etchings, The War (Der Krieg), shows a brutal reality that lays waste to Bush’s anesthetized vision of war wounds.
Representing the moment of impact on the battlefield, “Wounded Man (Autumn 1916, Bapaume)” is an index of physical pain. A soldier collapses diagonally across the picture plane, dissolving into a gray textured surface punctuated by stark patches of black and white, with sprays of acid spots surrounding the figure. The man’s gaping mouth and crooked, bug-eyed stare reduces any potential battlefield narrative into a moment of panic.
The image evokes the fragmentation of space and spatial disorientation experienced by soldiers at war. The reflexivity between the collapsing body and the crumbling earth on either side is reinforced by the consistency of color, rendering the folds of earth and those of the soldier’s uniform almost indiscernible, whether viewed close-up or from a distance; the two organic entities, body and earth, coalesce visually into two states of the same substance.
The illusion of simultaneous intermingling and fragmentation is underscored by the black, gaping wound in the soldier’s side, near the center of the composition, where his broken left arm appears to rupture the body from within. The awkward positioning of the soldier’s arms further disrupts the body’s integrity: while the contorted left arm points away from the body — its deformed hand illuminated against a black halo of shattered earth — the right arm, which grips his chest, seems as if it’s reaching up from the earth and pulling the body downward into its own grave.
In her seminal study, The Body in Pain (1985), Harvard professor Elaine Scarry defines pain as a unique perceptual state because it “has no referential content. It is not of or for anything. It is precisely because it takes no object that it, more than any other phenomenon, resists objectification in language.”
If pain is communicable, it is through a tenuous vocabulary expressed by the sufferer’s bodily reaction: twitching, cringing, or, as in Dix’s “Wounded Man,” eyes popping and mouth agape.
In his 1915 novel Under Fire (Le Feu), French author and WWI veteran Henri Barbusse writes of a wounded soldier: “A young man, his eyes aflame, raises his arms and cries like one of the damned.” Pain does not silence the sufferer. Rather, it “actively destroys” language, and the destruction of language shatters the holism of the sufferer.
Insofar as ancillary language may compensate for the inexpressibility of pain, narrative serves to conform the chaos or physical and psychological trauma of the war to a system of logic (or systematized illogic); it schematizes the unspeakable, as if a coherent battle plan were superimposed upon the agony of the trenches. With the absence of such a structuring story, the damaged body in “Wounded Man” is the narrative.
Dix intensifies the effect by excluding all other presences, ensuring that the viewer’s interaction with the artwork encompasses only a twofold experience: feeling pain and bearing witness. The viewer is thereby necessary to “complete” the image — to attest to the truth of pain and injury. Yet if pain is an attack, on the body and language, the split between the sufferer and the onlooker causes a breakdown of the symbolic order for both parties. The onlooker must attest to something that is by its nature inexpressible.
The intimacy of Dix’s image collapses the distance between the viewer and artwork without defusing the traumatic shock. “Wounded Man (Autumn 1916, Bapaume)” implores the viewer with pain and fear. One hundred years after the US entered WWI, and with the most unpredictable administration in our history holding office, Dix’s work is a reminder that war destroys logic as easily as it destroys lives and, in Barbusse’s words, “cries like one of the damned.”