Narratives of the flesh: The Fragmented Male Body in Dada

This article is indebted to the work of Mia Fineman, and specifically her landmark essay Ecce Homo Prostheticus of 1999

Illustration in ink, some colour added digitally.

In Weimar Germany, the classical ideal of the perfect male form had been shattered by the bombs and artillery of the first world war. The government had imposed a ban on the publication of images showing soldiers and mutilated and maimed, yet the public could see with their own eyes “war cripples” propped up on street corners, abandoned by the state. In the turbulence that followed the war, an entirely new industry was born, prosthetics were not just objects to relieve suffering, they became layered with their own philosophies and ideals, the inorganic and the organic merged together represented a new age of man and the masculine ideal.

The state’s censorship of the truth via the ban on images showcased a stance of denial, the allowance of two prostheses per person created a horror of a situation where the worst off had to choose their most valuable limbs. The prosthetics industry boomed, for those who had the cash, prosthetics were slick, efficient and represented a new age of man. Freud’s belief that all man’s weaknesses in regards to productivity could be solved by technology peppered major essays released by the industry at the time.

One such collection of essays, published in 1919, titled “Artificial Limbs and Work Aids for War Cripples and Accident “contains many of the images one would expect, of fresh amputees and shiny new prostheses. The Freudian narrative of ‘better with technology’ is sang and themes of the Nietschian super-man also ring out, the machine man, the “Homo Prostheticus” becomes a new masculine ideal within the industry.

Within the expected images, the reader is confronted with two small photographs that evoke a line of questioning that traces a different line of narrative, one of the history of art and the historical representation of the male body. Shown front on and in profile, the Spitzy Statue is a modern classical sculpture, which prior to the prosthetic accessories, represented the classical ideals of the perfect man. Youth, strength and fertility. The addition of a chest strap and a prosthetic leg, creates a man that is now an Other to the classical ideal. Perhaps intended to represent the improvement and bettering of the classical form, the almost grotesque abstraction of flesh from the use of prosthetics in these images, connote the darker elements of the age of prosthetics. The stigma attached to male suffering in Weimar Germany was severe in regards to both physical and especially mental injuries. The classical form of the Spitzy statue cannot help but be subverted by the addition of prosthetics, the fig leaf, once a symbol of modesty and decency in the archaic ideal, coupled with the prosthetics, now becomes a symbol of emasculation. The cultural fear of the loss of masculinity via mental and physical injury manifests itself regularly in references to castration.

Figure 1 The “Spitzy Statue,” from Artificial Limbs and Work-Aids for War-Cripples and Accident Victims, featured in Mia Fineman’s ground-breaking essay. untitled.png

The classical masculine narrative of provider, hunter and saviour was being re-written, and even in texts such as “Artificial Limbs”, one can see the struggle to address the problem of physical weakness, even when supplemented and repaired, belittling the masculine ideal of strength.

Where the prosthetics industry sought to re-define the male as the machine man, new and improved, many state images sought to ignore the wounded and maimed. The still from Ways to Strength and Beauty by Wilhelm Prager, showcases the narrative of young, healthy and fit veterans returning from War in noble circumstances, now performing their duty in the world of work. The Free Body movement also gaining momentum in Germany at this time was seemingly ignorant of the mass mutilation caused by war and the Prosthetic industry’s ideal of the mechanised man.

Neither narrative, the gleaming iron-man or the perfect physical specimen, ring true. But within both, one is able to witness the re-writing of the male narrative in a time of huge societal upheaval, and to also witness the fears over the loss of key pillar stones of masculine identity- recreation, physical and mental strength.

Artists such as Otto Dix, sought to shatter all narratives, to abandon the classical ideal, attack the modern archetype of the German Man, proliferated by the state and the Free Body movement and to make grotesque the machine man of the prosthetics industry.

In Dix’s most famous work The Card Players of 1920, three veterans, representing from left to right, British, French and German forces sit at a small table playing cards, seemingly unaware of their own grotesqueness.

The new ideal of the mechanised man is parodied as the veterans adapt their malformed bodies to new purposes, that aren’t more efficient, they are more grotesque and unsettling. The British soldier holds his deck of his cards with his foot and what appears to be his spinal cord, doubles up as a handy telephone perched on the table. The idea of the organic and inorganic seamlessly blending in this new prosthetic man is lampooned and exaggerated by Dix. The veteran is deemed useful, because he now is an electronic mode of communication, not a basic human being. This facet of the picture relates to the prosthetic industry designing prosthetics to aid workers, to close the distance between their tools and labour as they are now the tools of their labour.[1]

The German soldier is the smallest of the trio, an obvious subversion of the pride Dix should feel in his nation and highlighting the failure of the German state in the provision of prosthetics and after war care. The sheer scale of the German soldier also mocks the idea of the strong and healthy body proliferated by the Free Body movement and showcases what really is left of Germany’s war heroes. Dix actively lampoons the narrative of the strong German soldier in the contrast of the Iron Cross medal, a medal for bravery and prowess in battle with the broken and badly put together state of the soldier in the Card Players.


Figure 2 Otto Dix, The Skat Players, Card Playing War Invalids, (1920) Oil and collage on canvas, 110 × 87 cm, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The narrative of castration anxiety seen in the Spitzy statue is repeated in the German soldier’s prosthetics, he is crudely cut in half, but inserted into his stomach are a tiny pair of genitals. Dix shatters the idea of repairing the broken masculinity with modern technology. The archaic classical ideal of men as providers is showcased to be present in Weimar Germany, so strong an idea, that even soldiers so poorly put together, are provided with prosthetic means of reproduction.

George Grosz, another prominent Dadaist, was also fascinated with mutilation and the changing narrative of the male body in the face of the world war. In his autobiography, he recounts an exaggerated conversation about an unfortunate soldier who had lost his genitals due to a bomb blast, “No more fun with the girls for him,” said the medical orderly. The sergeant was of a different opinion. “Don’t believe it, my boy,” he said. “They’ll bloody well give him a brand new custom-built cock made of bloody wood.”[2]

The idea that the soldier will feel no sexual pleasure, but the girls can still have fun with him, shatters the notion of the male body as active. In this instance, the male body is passive, and the female body, still intact in terms of the classical ideal, is active. The French and British soldiers both are partially blind, the British soldier particularly, may be fully blind as we can only see his profile. The theme of blindness links with the idea of castration, as blindness causes passivity, the once strong soldier now needs assistance from his peers. The active ideal of the male body is subverted, showcased in the reliance on machine in Dix’s work, and the themes of blindness and castration, creating a new, passive male entity.

The ban on mutilated images was lifted in 1920. Perhaps the government recognised that public opinion on the war couldn’t become more sour by seeing images that had already been faced with in their personal lives. Dix showcases the flaws in nationalist, classical and technological narratives. By exaggerating the forms and figures of the maimed veterans, he showcases how the classical ideal of the male body is redundant, but also the new ideal proposed by the state, of a strong, healthy young man, who has performed his duty in battle and now performs his duty in work, is a myth. Dix also creates grotesque images that confront the bubbling Free Body movement in Germany at this time, the movement celebrated the natural body, but the prosthetic body, the body maimed by metal, was ubiquitous and seemed to have no place in the celebration.

Dix’s comments on the male body narrative in his pictures question the ideal physicality of Man, confronting classical ideals, state myths and utopian movements. However, Dix’s questioning of the narrative of the male as a strong minded entity is less obvious, ‘Male Hysteria’ was a topic that questioned the masculine perhaps more than representations of physicality. Yet, Dix as a veteran himself, was perhaps reluctant to discuss this narrative as in a society of stigma, it belittled the credit, sympathy and support due to the veteran.

In the Card Players of 1920, Dix provides a cutting caricature to contribute to the narrative of the male body, by shattering the myths spread by its biggest story tellers. The male body is emasculated, castrated, blinded and metamorphoses into a machine, it is not celebrated or championed.

The male narrative is transformed into a grotesque and tragic tale, with a lampooning of all physical ideals of the male body. A new passive, pieced together male entity is formed, Dix showcases a masculine identity that is to be run away from, far from ideals often narrated in art.

[1] Mia Fineman, “Ecce Homo Prostheticus,” New German Critique No.76, Special Issue on Weimar Visual Culture (Winter, 1999):

George Grosz, A small yes and a big no, trans. Arnold J. Pomeras (London: Alli- son & Busby, 1982) 88.

[2] George Grosz, A small yes and a big no, trans. Arnold J. Pomeras (London: Alli- son & Busby, 1982) 88.

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