Shattered Tree

“Shttered Tree” by  Otto Dix (1941)

When I first laid eyes on the above painting I thought, “Whoa, I guess Bob Ross had a dark side!”

Not quite.

The above piece is titled “Shattered Tree” and it is by the German painter Otto Dix.

Dix was part of a cultural movement-cum-art-exhibition called Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which rejected the Romantic sentimental outlook of expressionism.


While many artists, thinkers and spiritual leaders fled Germany during the instability of the Weimar era and the rise of National Socialism, Dix joined others who described themselves as “inner emigrants“—opting rather to live as ostensible immigrants within the boarders of a nation that was becoming increasingly foreign to them.

I happened upon this painting last week at the Art Institute of Chicago and snapped the picture. I’m indebted to Janis Staggs (Curator at Neue Galerie New York) for featuring the piece on her site (as I didn’t initially write down the details). She writes:

…he was classified as “degenerate” under the Nazi regime and went into an “inner emigration” in southern Germany rather than leaving the country. Dix continued to paint during WWII but focused subjects with a non-overt political nature, such as this 1941 painting entitled “Shattered Tree.”

This piece reflects Dix’s thoughts and feelings about the state of his country. It is gloomy. There are signs of death and decay. What appears to be a once-regal tree is now fracturing; cleft by brutal, destructive forces.

And I find myself resonating with the notions of inner emigration, which mirrors St. Peter’s sentiment of living as “aliens and strangers in the land” (1 Pet 2:11), connoting that one can feel like a foreigner or alien within one’s society. The term “stranger” could be translated sojourner, exile, pilgrim or even refugee. 

If we ask art to fit into our lingual categories or to say something explicitly, we will often find art loath to accommodate our demand.

Art says those things we cannot say; because they cannot be put cogently into words, can find no hearer on which to alight, and, in some cases, are strictly forbidden (streng verboten).

In this way, art can be a lonely, prophetic business; the voice crying in the wilderness! And yet art also has power to ping the cosmos; to transmit though space and time the message, “You are not alone!”, and, perchance, to be pinged back.

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