George Grosz

Summary

George Grosz († July 6, 1959 ibid.) was a German-US painter, graphic artist, caricaturist and war opponent.George Grosz”s social and socio-critical paintings and drawings of Verism, most of which were created in the 1920s, are classified as New Objectivity. These works are characterized by sometimes drastic and provocative depictions and often by political statements. However, his work also bears expressionist, dadaist and futurist traits. Typical subjects are the big city, its aberrations (murder, perversion, violence) as well as the class antagonisms that show themselves in it. In his works, often caricatures, he mocks the ruling circles of the Weimar Republic, picks up on social antagonisms and criticizes in particular the economy, politics, the military and the clergy.

Childhood and youth

Georg Groß was born in Berlin in 1893, the son of the innkeeper Karl Ehrenfried Groß and his wife Marie Wilhelmine Luise, née Schultze. In 1898 the family moved to Stolp in Pomerania. After his father”s death in 1900, the mother moved with him back to Berlin for a short time, but already in 1902 they returned to Stolp, where the mother took over the management of an officers” casino.

Groß attended the upper secondary school there until 1908, where he was encouraged by his art teacher. Even as a child, he copied drawings from illustrated magazines and read adventure and detective stories with enthusiasm. He was especially interested in pictures that depicted dramatic scenes. “An indelible impression was made on me by the atrocity panorama paintings at the fairs and shooting festivals.” In his autobiography Ein kleines Ja und ein großes Nein (A Small Yes and a Big No), he continues to describe what he perceived as harassing and violent conditions at school. After he retaliated by slapping a teacher in the face, he was forced to leave the school.

At the Royal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Dresden, which he was allowed to attend from 1909 after disputes with his mother, he learned nothing meaningful, according to his own statements. “Our main work was the reproduction of plaster casts in original size.” He did, however, make the acquaintance of Otto Dix.

After graduating, he went to Berlin in 1912 and studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule on a state scholarship; he was a student of Emil Orlik there. Berlin was the center of progressive art and culture. The art shops featured Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh as well as modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain. Grosz visited not only exhibitions, but also fairgrounds and other places of amusement, where he made sketches. He drew for “joke sheets”, but also at the same time after nature in the School of Arts and Crafts. In the spring of 1913 he went to Paris for the first time for eight months, where he studied the Parisian atmosphere and people. At the Colarossi studio he took lessons in nude drawing. Important sources of influence at this time are considered to be Japanese woodcuts, caricatures, especially from the Simplicissimus, and the realists Honoré Daumier and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.In 1914 he was awarded 2nd prize by the School of Instruction of the Museum of Decorative Arts of the Royal Museums.

Influence of the First World War on his work

After the start of the First World War, Grosz voluntarily joined the army as an infantryman in November 1914 in order to avoid the front-line service usually associated with a compulsory enlistment. He was discharged as unfit for service as early as May 1915. “War for me was horror, mutilation and annihilation.” As a strict opponent of war, he, like his friend, the artist John Heartfield, formerly Helmut Herzfeld, no longer wanted to bear a German name. Therefore, from 1916 on, he called himself George Grosz. By choosing an English name, he wanted to send a signal against the patriotically heated anti-English sentiment in the Empire; added to this was a certain enthusiasm for America. Grosz drew many critical war scenes during this period.

Grosz described himself as a “modern battle painter” and had also obtained illustrations of works by the classical battle painter Emil Hünten for study purposes. Franz Pfemfert, editor of the left-wing expressionist weekly Die Aktion, published a drawing and a poem by George Grosz in July and November 1915.

Grosz”s notoriety rose further in 1916 with the publication of three full-page drawings in the newly published journal Neue Jugend (called “Heft Sieben” under military censorship) and an essay about him by Theodor Däubler in Die weißen Blätter, one of the most important journals of literary Expressionism. He came into contact with patrons of the arts, including Harry Graf Kessler and later Felix Weil. In retrospect, he wrote self-critically that the work of art had become a commodity, and that in 1916 he had temporarily played the role of an aspiring artist to the patron, flattering himself depending on what the respective person wanted to see and hear.

Grosz was finally drafted in 1917. According to his own account, he was to be shot as a deserter and was only saved by the intervention of Harry Graf Kessler. He was transferred to a mental hospital and discharged on May 20 as “unfit for service.” He went back to Berlin and threw himself into big-city life there. He completed his early major work “Metropolis” in 1917. It describes the city as an unleashed chaos – Stretching street corridors, aimlessly wandering people, an apocalyptic hullabaloo around the Central Hotel at Friedrichstraße station, all drenched in blood-red paint. The painting hangs today in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The oil painting Dedication to Oskar Panizza (1918) in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart is also in a similar style.

Dadaism

Grosz, together with John Heartfield and Wieland Herzfelde, was the founder of the Berlin Dada scene. Together with Richard Huelsenbeck, the Swiss Dada initiator, he organized the first Dada evenings in the Berlin Secession on Kurfürstendamm in 1917. In the course of World War I, Dadaism had spread throughout Europe. Everywhere, artists protested against the war and the bourgeoisie and artists who thought in terms of the authoritarian state through targeted provocations and supposed illogic. They contrasted the enthusiasm for war with pacifist positions and took the hitherto valid bourgeois values to the absurd. Meetings were held for admission money, at which the audience was then insulted, sometimes rudely, for their money. There were frequent brawls, police were present. Artistic actions were sometimes improvised. One of the slogans was, “Dada is senseless.” Members took on function titles, so Grosz became “Propagandada.” In 1920, he co-organized and exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin. He exhibited there the surrealist painting A Victim of Society, a collage on canvas. Later titled Remember Uncle August, the Unhappy Inventor, it hangs today in the Centre Georges-Pompidou.During this phase he also absorbed pictorial influences from Cubism and Fauvism.

Politically oriented work

In 1919, under the impression of the November Revolution, he became a member of the KPD and the November Group and put his art at the service of the proletariat: artists had the task of participating in the struggle for freedom. Compared to his early Dadaist works, the subject matter changed from pub, street and big city scenes to a bitterly vicious depiction of the political opponent. During this period, he created his major political painting Germany, a Winter”s Tale, named after Heinrich Heine”s eponymous verse epic: In the center, a staid reserve officer as a typical German philistine with roast pork, beer, and the local gazette. Below, three “pillars of society”: priest, general, professor. The world sways around the bourgeois, a sailor serves as a symbol for the revolution. In addition, there is a prostitute, all a reflection of the time in which the entire value system seemed to disintegrate. At the bottom left is a silhouette of Grosz himself. This painting also represented one of the highlights of the First International Dada Fair of 1920. It disappeared after 1933.

He became co-founder of four politically radical magazines, Jedermann sein eigener Fußball (one issue in February 1919), Die Pleite (1919 to 1924), Der Gegner (1919 to 1924), and Der blutige Ernst (1919), published by Malik-Verlag. Grosz illustrated for far-left publications until 1930, including the satirical magazines of the KPD Eulenspiegel and Roter Pfeffer. He also drew for Das Stachelschwein (1925 to 1928), published by Hans Reimann, and Simplicissimus (1926 to 1932). Contributing to his growing fame were the publications in Querschnitt from 1922, the paper of the gallery owner Alfred Flechtheim.

He never limited himself to purely party-political satire. In addition to the explicitly political works, he continued to draw late Dadaist and (only) socially critical illustrations. Among these, the lithographs – drawings, vignettes, initials, and endpapers – for Alphonse Daudet”s The Wondrous Adventures of Tartarin of Tarascon stand out in particular. He also illustrated many other literary works, including those for Heinrich Mann, Walter Mehring, and Upton Sinclair. In addition, from 1929 onward, he also published completely non-political contributions for the supplement Ulk of the Berliner Tageblatt.

Further life in Berlin

He had his first solo exhibition in 1920 at the Munich Galerie Neue Kunst, which was run by Hans Goltz, a pioneer of modern art. As early as 1918 he had signed a contract for sole representation with him, which he renewed in 1920. In 1922, when he first delivered drawings to the Düsseldorf art dealer and patron Alfred Flechtheim for the magazine Der Querschnitt, he terminated the contract with Hans Goltz.That same year, on May 26, 1920, he married Eva Louise Peter and moved with her to the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf. Grosz lived with his family in this district until January 1933, when he moved to the USA. Together they had sons Peter (b. 1926) and Martin, called Marty (b. 1930).In 1922 Grosz made a five-month trip to the Soviet Union with Maxim Gorky because of a book project, during which he also had an audience with Lenin and visited Trotsky. Under these travel impressions, he resigned from the KPD, rejecting any form of authoritarianism and dictatorship and criticizing the economic conditions for the broad masses of the people, but continued to remain true to his views.In 1923, Alfred Flechtheim became George Grosz”s art dealer, exhibiting regularly in his galleries in Düsseldorf and Berlin and thus also earning a regular income.From 1924 to 1925 and again in 1927, he made trips to France. There he created works of art such as portraits and landscapes, also for a living. In 1924 he exhibited in Paris. In 1925 he resumed oil painting with the portrait of the writer Max Herrmann-Neiße – one of the main attractions of the Mannheim exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit in the same year. It was acquired by the Mannheim Municipal Art Gallery. In 1926 he completed another of his major works: Stützen der Gesellschaft. With the title, he alludes to Henrik Ibsen”s drama of the same name. In this allegory of German society in the Weimar Republic, he caricatures three representative types: a jurist, recognizable with smack and monocle as an eternally eastward-riding corps brother, no blindfold like Justitia, but instead without ears; a journalist, recognizable to contemporaries as press czar Alfred Hugenberg, helmeted with the proverbial chamber pot as an expression of his limited attitude, newspapers under his arm and hypocritically holding a palm frond; a Social Democratic deputy, the pamphlet “Socialism is Work,” the SPD”s slogan of the time, under his arm and the shit he keeps steaming in his head, and a schnapps-nosed military chaplain preaching peace while behind his back murder and manslaughter are already reigning through the Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten and Wehrwolf (Wehrverband). It can be seen today in the National Gallery in Berlin. In the same year the oil painting Sonnenfinsternis (Solar Eclipse) was created: Hindenburg is sitting at the conference table, on the other seats headless cabinet members, and from behind a representative of big business is blowing slogans at him. Meanwhile, the people, in the form of a donkey, are eating up the lying press products. The painting has hung in Huntington, New York, Collection of the Heckscher Museum of Art since 1968; he originally sold it in his Huntington home to pay a car bill; today it is the most valuable painting in the collection. Both paintings are in the style of the new synthetic realism developed by Heinrich Vogeler in his Komplexbilder.In 1927, the Prussian Academy of Arts devoted a special exhibition to Georg Grosz.In 1928, he was he was awarded a gold medal in Amsterdam at the art show on the occasion of the Olympic Games for his portrait of Max Schmeling; in Düsseldorf he received the gold medal German Art.George Grosz participated in 1929 as a full member of the Deutscher Künstlerbund in the DKB annual exhibition in the Cologne Staatenhaus am Rheinpark with Berlin at Night and Der Musikclown Herbert Williams. At the end of 1931, Alfred Flechtheim was forced to terminate his contract with Grosz, presumably because of his economic situation, which was very tense due to the Great Depression and mounting racist attacks on his galleries; Grosz himself did not want to resume it in 1932 in order to maintain his economic flexibility.

Theater and stage design

With Fritz Mehring and John Heartfield, Grosz organized a political puppet show in 1920 at the cabaret Schall und Rauch, to which he contributed the puppet designs, and together with John Heartfield developed stage designs and costumes for George Bernard Shaw”s play Caesar and Cleopatra. Several stage designs for Berlin stages followed until 1930, including Erwin Piscator”s Proletarian Theater, the Volksbühne and the Deutsches Theater. He achieved groundbreaking innovations with the premiere of Paul Zech”s Das trunkene Schiff and, above all, with the premiere of the stage version of Jaroslav Hašek”s novel Die Abenteuer des braven Soldaten Schwejk (The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schwejk) in 1928 at the experimental Piscator stage on Nollendorfplatz. He brought in cinematic effects and projections, and a double treadmill with life-size figures based on drawings by Grosz was used. In 1930 he designed the sets and figurines for the first performance of Arnold Zweig”s stage play Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz (a guest performance of the Deutsches Theater under the direction of Max Reinhardt).

Portfolio works

Early on, Georg Grosz contrasted the type of the “easel painter” with that of the journalistic daily draftsman, which he considered more contemporary and modern. The political intentions of many of his works also demanded popularization and wider dissemination. In his friendship with the publisher Wieland Herzfelde, he found the prerequisites for this in his collaboration with the Malik publishing house, just as, conversely, his works and the photomontages of John Heartfield provided the artistic framework for the publishing house. From 1917 to 1928, he published six graphic portfolios there, an anthology with original graphic claims, and also illustrated numerous books. As early as 1916, the first George Grosz portfolio was published by the Berlin printer Hermann Birkholz, who went on to print for Malik-Verlag, which was founded in 1917. In 1920 the portfolio Gott mit uns appeared, a reckoning with German militarism, which was exhibited at the First International Dada Fair. Images from it were included in the 1921 volume Das Gesicht der herrschenden Klasse. In 1921 the portfolio Im Schatten was published, and the following year Die Räuber. The first portfolio of the two shows the oppressed and pauperized proletariat, the second a cynical psychogram of the upper class. There were discounted editions for trade union organizations. 1922

In 1936, Grosz published his first portfolio in America, Interregnum, with 64 drawings from the years 1927-1936 and a color lithograph (The Muckraker). With it, however, he was unable to match the success of Ecce Homo. One reason for this could have been the high price of $50 and the small print run of 300 copies, but also that he did not take a partisan (left-wing) position with his depictions – as the majority of intellectuals did – but attacked fascism and communism in equal measure. It was not until 1944 that George Grosz. Drawings by him another portfolio work appeared in the USA.

Grosz”s Work and the Judiciary

Grosz was subjected to numerous grueling court cases during the Weimar period. As early as 1921, he had been sentenced to a fine of 300 marks for “insulting the Reichswehr” on the basis of the portfolio Gott mit uns (God with us), which was exhibited at the Dada art fair in 1920. A fine of 600 marks was additionally imposed on his publisher Wieland Herzfelde by Malik-Verlag. A captain in the Reichswehr had filed the complaint because he had found the Dada exhibition in general, and Georg Grosz”s portfolio in particular, to be systematic agitation and despicable denigration.

In 1923, further proceedings were opened for “attacking public morals” under § 184 of the German Penal Code (StGB), the obscenity paragraph. Seven color and 27 black-and-white illustrations from the work Ecce Homo were confiscated in April, and in December charges were brought for distributing lewd writings. In 1924, Georg Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde, and Julian Gumperz were each fined 500 marks. Five watercolors and 17 drawings had to be removed from the portfolio; the corresponding plates and forms were also to be rendered unusable. The positive oral statements of the invited experts, including the Reich Art Warden Edwin Redslob, and the written expert opinion of Max Liebermann could not change this. The deciding factor for the judges was “the sense of shame of the normally feeling human being.

The folder Der Spiesser-Spiegel was also very controversial, but no advertisement was issued. However, this happened thirty years later, in 1955, when the Arani publishing house reissued it. The public prosecutor”s office examined an excitation of public nuisance, but then took the view that the sheets “could not necessarily be regarded as lewd, it was a borderline case,” and discontinued the proceedings.

From 1927 to 1932 Grosz had to endure five court battles, including a charge of blasphemy; in addition, there was a follow-up trial and negotiations about the confiscation and rendering unusable of the incriminated drawings. The occasion was the drawing Shut Up and Keep on Serving, which depicts Christ on the cross wearing a gas mask. It had previously been shown in the stage set among the background projections during Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht”s production of the play The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schwejk in Berlin in 1927 and had been published by Grosz with two other drawings in the portfolio entitled Background. The charge of blasphemy ended in 1931 with an acquittal. The “Grosz case” was dealt with in two Reichstag sessions and five sessions of the Prussian parliament. Numerous artistic and political associations showed solidarity with the defendants publicly and by writing to the courts. Journalists from party and church papers, art and literary magazines dealt with it throughout Europe. Even the Quaker denomination appeared as an expert witness in this trial for the only time in its history. The positive opinion is remarkable, since the Quakers had a rather skeptical relationship to art. However, they attested Grosz a stirring and moving pictorial effect with the painting and denied the existence of a clear boundary between artistic and religious intuition.

Concept of art

In his essay Instead of a Biography, first published in 1921, Grosz takes a critical look at the contemporary concept and operation of art. Art is described as a “banknote factory” and “stock machine” for “aesthetic fops” dependent on the bourgeois class. It also serves as an “escape to a purer paradise free of party and civil war.” The artist usually comes from the lower classes and must conform to the “bonzes.” Either he gets monthly money from a patron or he falls for the art dealer who serves the latest fashion. As a “creator”, he thinks he is high above the “philistines” who laugh at the paintings of Picasso and Derain, but he only creates supposed profundity, far from any reality. He also rejects abstract art and expressionism. Bitingly, he takes issue with the “individualist” artists: “Are you working for the proletariat that will be the bearer of the coming culture?    Your brushes and feathers, which should be weapons, are empty straws.” He himself takes the side of the “oppressed” and wants to “show the true faces of their masters” in a visual language that everyone can understand.In the early 1930s, Grosz was one of Germany”s most notorious artists and the most sought-after illustrator. His name was closely associated with the cultural and artistic modernism of the Weimar Republic. He was considered a “communist” artist; his works were bought by museums and shown in numerous exhibitions, including those aimed at workers. He and his family were the subject of coverage by numerous illustrated magazines, feuilletons courted his opinion, bourgeois illustrated magazines adopted his more innocuous drawings of clowns, jazz musicians or peasants. Futurism, Cubism and New Objectivity – his work encompassed essential parts of Classical Modernism. Against this backdrop, in 1931 he reaffirmed his view of contemporary art as part of the bourgeois, capitalist racket that maintained the status of the ruling class and left artists at the mercy of art dealers.

Relocation to the USA and late work

From June to October 1932 Grosz received a teaching position at the Art Students League of New York. He accepted it, partly because of his deteriorating financial situation, and taught a nude class. He decided to leave Germany for good and emigrated to the United States on January 12, 1933; his children followed in October. Immediately after the seizure of power at the end of January, his studio was stormed; possibly he was to be tracked down in his apartment. Already on March 8, 1933, nine days after the Reichstag fire, George Grosz was expatriated, as the first and initially only one of 553 immediately registered public figures. His works that remained in Germany fell into the hands of the National Socialists, who confiscated them as “degenerate art,” sold them cheaply abroad, or destroyed them. Of 170 works from the Berlin period, about 70 are lost, over 50 of which he had sent to his gallery owner Alfred Flechtheim, who himself had to flee at the end of May 1933 and wind up his gallery.

In 2003, the Grosz family sued the Museum of Modern Art and the Bremen Kunsthalle, accusing them of misappropriating paintings, including MoMA for the 2nd portrait “Max Hermann-Neisse (the painting hangs in the Museum of Modern Art to this day, as does “The Painter and His Model”. The same applies to two paintings in the Bremen Kunsthalle, “Still Life with Ocarina” (1931) and “Pompe funèbre” (1925), and several other works in other museums.

In America, Grosz lived first in Bayside, New York, and from 1947 in Huntington, New York, in a house he bought in 1952. He created about 280 paintings in the USA. In addition to about 100 nudes, he also painted Images of Hell, a series of apocalyptic scenes and war paintings that he began in 1937 under the impact of the Spanish Civil War and continued with passion in the face of the destructive violence of German Nazism. He was disillusioned that the “proletarian masses” had not resisted Hitler in 1933, horrified by the murder of Erich Mühsam, whom he cherished, and stunned by the reports of escaped emigrants from the concentration camps. An outstanding example of these paintings is Cain, or Hitler in Hell (1944, Gallery David Nolan, New York): An oversized Adolf Hitler sits on a rock in front of a grim wartime inferno, amid a pile of small skeletons. After the end of the war, several disturbing pictures under the impression of the atomic threat are to be counted in this series.

Compared to many other German emigrants, Grosz was also successful in America, both in terms of the sale of his paintings and through his almost continuous, if increasingly unloved, teaching at the Art Students League of New York, which secured his material existence. After a four-year break, he therefore resumed it in 1949. He had regular exhibitions – three in his arrival year alone – and published drawings, for example in the satirical magazine Americana, Vanity Fair and Life. In 1945 he won 2nd prize in the 1945 Painting in the United States exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh with the painting The Survivor (1944). However, it could not stand comparison to his controversial but very high reputation in Germany. He was largely perceived in the U.S. as a German artist, and his works did not achieve the level of recognition and analytical acuity as they did in Germany. His romantic view of America and his status as a guest citizen would not have permitted this at first, even if both changed over time. After the end of the war in 1945, his late work became increasingly decorative and apolitical. He painted partly delicate, harmonious watercolors, still lifes, nudes and landscapes, which no longer achieved the notoriety of his early work. He himself described his late work as more artistic, compared to his early well-known political works, and referred to a return to the old masters. Grosz was elected an associate member (ANA) of the National Academy of Design in New York in 1950.

In 1954, he was elected a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters and received its Gold Medal for Graphic Arts in 1959.

In June 1938 Grosz became an American citizen. In 1946, his autobiography A little yes, and a big no was published; it did not appear in German until 1955, with the title Ein kleines Ja und ein großes Nein. In this book, his deep brokenness becomes clear; it is written in the tone of a semi-ironic bitterness. He no longer openly acknowledges his early, politically and culturally aggressive works, but clearly makes a cut between the two periods of his life. He describes, for example, rather half-heartedly the Dada movement, which he denies any aesthetics and which he calls the “art (or philosophy) of the garbage can.” However, this did not prevent him from making a 40-page series of Dadaist collages shortly before his return to Germany in 1957. He stood by his contradictoriness and defended it with the verses of Walt Whitman: I contain multiplicities; why should I not contradict myself? He suffered from depression and increasingly leaned towards alcoholism.

After Grosz was appointed a member of the West Berlin Academy of Arts in postwar Germany, he returned to Germany from the United States in 1959 at the urging of his wife Eva. Only a few weeks later, at the age of almost 66, he died on July 6 in his native Berlin after falling down a flight of stairs due to drunkenness.

The burial took place on July 10, 1959 at the Heerstraße cemetery in what is now the Berlin-Westend district. Eva Grosz was buried next to her husband in 1960. By decision of the Berlin Senate, the final resting place of George Grosz (grave location: 16-B-19) has been dedicated as an honorary grave of the State of Berlin since 1960. The dedication was last extended in 2016 for the now customary period of twenty years.

The son Peter Michael Grosz, an internationally recognized aviation historian, died in September 2006, and the son Marty remains one of the best-known classical jazz musicians in the United States.

George Grosz”s estate is cared for by the Houghton Library at Harvard University and by the Archive of the Berlin Academy of Arts.

George Grosz”s works strongly influenced other representatives of the New Objectivity in Germany and painters of social realism in the U.S.; his students in the U.S. included James Rosenquist and Jackson Pollock in 1955. To this day, he remains an important role model for political cartoonists and illustrators; his works were and still are influential in shaping the socio-political image of the Weimar Republic. George Grosz Square on Berlin”s Kurfürstendamm was named after him in 1996, and was completely renovated in 2010. A mosaic plaque with his signature was embedded in the ground and an information pillar was installed.

As part of the series “German Painting of the 20th Century”, the German Federal Post Office issued a 100 pfennig special stamp with the motif Im Cafe in 1993.

Oil paintings, watercolors, collages

portfolios, illustrated books, essayistic texts

Posthumous publications, reprints, letters

Sources

  1. George Grosz
  2. George Grosz