Baby with Umbilical Cord by Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix

Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix

Baby with Umbilical Cord, 1934, Oil on canvas, Permanent loan to Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; Photo: akg-images

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Naked I Came from my Mother’s Womb

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Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix’s Baby with Umbilical Cord (1927) is the kind of painting that you just cannot walk past. It depicts the artist’s son Ursus moments after birth when his mouth, hands, and feet are still purple and he cries to oxygenate his body.

Healthy though these signs are, they nonetheless create an unsettling image. The umbilical cord is freshly cut: this new life must survive alone in the world. The baby’s solitary struggle anticipates human suffering and loneliness.

When Job loses his wealth and his children in one disastrous day, he gives us the first taste of the poetry that will dominate thirty-nine chapters of the book: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return…’ (Job 1:21).

Satan is responsible for the evil. He is the simius dei, the ‘ape of God’ to use an idea derived from Tertullian (De Baptismo 5.3), masquerading as God, making God seem unfamiliar to Job. But it is with the one true God that Job wants to do business. He knows that God is sovereign over this adversity, calling him three times by his covenant name ‘YHWH’: ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD’ (v.21).

As his identity is stripped back by loss, Job rends his robe, shaves his head, and falls in worship before God. It is a moving act of faith shaped by the ritual norms of his society. But after Satan has covered Job in painful sores (2:7), and his three friends arrive (2:12–13), a more elemental quest for truth drives the existential poetry of Job’s complaint in chapter 3. Job refuses to curse God, which Satan and his wife both suggest, but as the book moves from prose to poetry, he curses the day of his birth (3:1).

‘Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?’ (3:11). This is an agonizing lament in which Job desires creation to be un-made and wishes that his very existence had been obliterated before he took his first breath. While Otto Dix’s painting conjures the perilous proximity of life and death as it emerges from the womb, Job’s words, for his own part, call for death to have the upper hand.

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