Writing from Art – self portraits reveal impact of war


Drawing on images from a previous post – The Impact of War: understanding the experience of Wilfred Owen – my current Year 12 class wrote creatively by exploring two self portraits of German painter Otto Dix. The first, dating from 1912, contrasts sharply with the 1914 painting and gave students an opportunity to respond to a visual representation of war that supports the ideas expressed by Owen in Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patra Mori.

Before working with the stimulus, we began with words: free writing to collect words inspired by the word ‘war’. After a few minutes, we shared a word each then built upon our lists by adding any words or ideas that produced an individual resonance.

Some words included: men, crime, screams, pain, bullets, machines, gas, sun, mud, yells, whistling, smoke, time, clock, ticking, dull. I added fatigue, artillery, shock, tragedy, destruction and government.

Next, we wrote freely, this time in sentences or phrases in response to the word ‘atrocity’.

the loss of young lives and the shift from people being at war to find themselves in a shitty, no-win situation. And how soldiers sink to the level of depravity by killing or murdering others, especially women and children in the heat of the battle …

This time, we read back over our writing and selected an interesting phrase or sentence to share. We ritually thanked each student who volunteered to share – we smiled more and more with each group ‘thank you’ chant.

I collected these gifts: horrific emotions to all, no time to run or hide, carnage, war pillaging souls. Then, we turned our attention to the self portraits.


First, we considered a projected image of this artwork, and students were instructed to choose a line and follow this around the picture to foster deep connections rather than a momentary glance. We created a word bank under these headings

  • shape
  • texture
  • colour
  • object
  • gaze
  • background
  • emotion

After much discussion and sharing of words and ideas, I projected the second painting:


Silence fell across the room. We repeated the same exercises: follow a line and create a word bank that explores important visual elements, before discussing and sharing.

Students were then set a journal task to compose a letter home, or diary entry to explore the emotional shift represented in these images.

Mine began

Hey, remember when I was carefree? Ok, maybe a little stilted and not exactly totally free? Only worrying about the exact colours to paint, the precision of my practice and craft. Mixing endlessly for that gradual tonal shift – the urge to capture light on my canvas in just such a way. Striving for perfection. I recall that portrait I gave you for Christmas one year. You were shocked to see my …


*image from Wikipedia

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