10 things to know about George Grosz
The artist who became a key figure in Dadaism, the leading chronicler of Weimar Berlin — and who was later labelled ‘Cultural Bolshevist Number One’ by the Nazis
George Grosz was born Georg Gross in Berlin in 1893. No accepted explanation has been given as to why, in his twenties, he changed his name, other than that he loved the art of disguise. In public he often pretended to be a cowboy or a Dutch businessman, while in private he occasionally greeted first-time visitors to his home by saying he was Herr Grosz’s butler and apologising for his master’s absence. He also adopted a range of pseudonyms throughout his life: from Count Bessler-Orffyre and George Leboeuf to Dr William King Thomas.
Grosz was born in Berlin but grew up in Stolp, a small town in Eastern Pomerania, not far from the Baltic. He returned to Berlin in 1910 to study at the School of Arts and Crafts, becoming a regular at the Café des Westens where the German Expressionists gathered.
Arguably an even more important artistic influence on the young Grosz, however, was Futurism. The dynamic angularity of the jostling forms in his two breakthrough paintings, The Funeral: Dedicated to Oskar Panizza (1917-18) and Germany, A Winter's Tale (1918), shows a clear debt to the movement.
War broke out while Grosz was still a student. He reluctantly signed up for the Deustches Heer in November 1914, only to be invalided out of the conflict with a sinus infection months later. Recalled to the front in 1917, he soon suffered a breakdown and was admitted to a field hospital, and then a military mental asylum, where doctors declared him unfit for service on grounds of insanity.
The experience prompted a number of rapidly sketched drawings — featuring, in the artist's own words, ‘the beastly faces of comrades, arrogant officers and lecherous nurses’. In the wake of Germany's defeat, Grosz said he ‘was disappointed not because the war had been lost, but because the people had suffered for so long without heeding the few voices raised against the mass slaughter’.
Starting in Zurich, before spreading to other European cities as war came to an end, Dada was rooted in disbelief that a conflict as absurdly long and devastating as World War I could have been fought in the name of progress. Dadaists concluded that the world had gone mad and that received values must be turned on their head.
In a defeated, demoralised Berlin, this included provocative stage performances — such as an obscene tap-dance routine with which Grosz made a name for himself. He also helped pioneer the technique of photomontage, which involved assembling fragments of photographs to create a synthetic new image — a reflection of the fractured Europe that was being unconvincingly pieced back together in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles.
Between the collapse of Germany's monarchy in 1918 and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933, Berlin gained a reputation for being the bawdiest, most licentious city in Europe. Its cabaret acts were outrageously explicit, and its brothels were infamous. It is said that cocaine could be bought in the city's nightclubs for half the price of a decent dinner.
‘Barbarism prevailed... the times were mad,’ wrote Grosz in his autobiography, A Little Yes and a Big No. His best-known works are visions of the seamy side of German metropolitan life at this time, which, along with Christopher Isherwood's ‘Berlin’ stories about Mr Norris and Sally Bowles, have indelibly shaped our picture of what the German capital was like in the Weimar years. They give off a heavy whiff of social decadence and political corruption.
Take, for instance, Grosz’s 1922 watercolour Orgie, depicting a dingy bar in which a grotesque, cigar-chomping drunk spews wine through his teeth, while other patrons defecate and copulate around him.
In his drawing collections such as The Face of the Ruling Class and Ecce Homo — as well as in his work for journals and broadsheets — Grosz depicted greedy capitalists, smug bourgeoisie and nouveaux riches hags, among other social groups. Blessed with a razor-sharp wit, he was a social satirist who saw himself continuing in the tradition of William Hogarth.
As the German philosopher Hannah Arendt observed years later, however, Grosz's cartoons ‘seemed to us not satire so much as realistic reportage. We recognised these types, they were all around us’.
Pimps and prostitutes abound in Ecce Homo, a book that caused such a furore that Grosz felt compelled to apply for a pistol license on the grounds of self-defence. He was also taken to court on charges that 52 of the book’s 100 images were pornographic. Grosz was tried in February 1924 and was fined 6,000 marks. Numerous plates from the publication were confiscated and banned. This was the first of three separate occasions on which Grosz was successfully sued for producing offensive artwork.
These events may have led to his extended trip to France in 1924, and a further stay in Paris from June to October in 1925. The Dingo American Bar was opened in 1923 and quickly gained notoriety among English-speaking artists and writers, not least because it was one of the few drinking-houses that was open all night. Ernest Hemingway first met F. Scott Fitzgerald there in April 1925, two weeks after the publication of The Great Gatsby and a few months before Grosz executed a study of the bar.
Grosz's work often expressed sympathy for poor, downtrodden workers suffering at the hands of rich, fat-cat bosses. ‘To show the oppressed the true face of their masters is the purpose of my work,’ he once said.
For a while, he was a member of the Communist Party, even receiving his membership card personally from Rosa Luxemburg (though over time, and after an underwhelming meeting with Lenin in the Soviet Union in 1922, his party loyalties waned).
Grosz felt that the fall of the Kaiser removed few of the inequalities that had long existed in German society. In 1930, he found an outlet for his frustrations by designing the costumes for Carl Sternheim’s adaptation of Flaubert’s political satire, The Candidate. Updated from 19th-century France to contemporary Berlin, it follows an ambitious candidate for the Reichstag who is courted by three different political party leaders — and who ultimately gives up his own wife to one of them to win the election.
After a brief, enjoyable spell spent teaching in New York, Grosz returned to the US on what turned out to be a long-term basis in 1933, just a week before Hitler became German chancellor. (He would remain in America for more than two decades.) Grosz’s subject matter was highly objectionable to the Nazis: they labelled him ‘Cultural Bolshevist Number One’, destroyed many of the works he’d left behind and included another 15 in their Entartete Kunst exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ in Munich in 1937.
By this point, however, Grosz was revelling in life across the Atlantic: as an artist he largely split his efforts between street scenes of Manhattan and windswept landscapes of Cape Cod. For the former, he roamed New York by day, sketchbook in hand, creating finished versions of his scenes by night — a typical result of this process being Quick Lunch, which shows customers of all socio-economic backgrounds crowding around a fast-food counter.
In 1938, having been stripped of his German citizenship, Grosz legally became an American. His style softened in these years, although there was still the occasional, apocalyptic painting of hell-fire on earth, which suggests the repression of freedoms back in his birth country were never far from his mind.
More than a hint of poignancy can be found in certain works on paper, too, such as the ink drawing titled Refugees, a self-portrait with his two sons. During the Second World War, his mother (who hadn't emigrated to the US with him) was killed in a bombing raid.
By the 1950s, Grosz had started to drink heavily, and his wife Eva hoped that a change of surroundings — namely a return to post-Nazi Germany — would help him kick the habit. In May 1958 they moved into her parents’ old flat in West Berlin; but in July, after falling down a flight of stairs during a heavy night’s drinking, Grosz died. He was 65.