George Grosz (1883-1959)

Der neue Mensch

George Grosz (1883-1959)
Der neue Mensch
stamped with signature 'GEORGE GROSZ' (lower left)
watercolor and pen and India ink over pencil on paper
20 x 13 5/8 in. (50.8 x 34.6 cm.)
Executed in 1921
J.B. Neumann Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, 1946.
Das Kunstblatt, vol. I, 1921, p. 10.
Mynona, George Grosz, Dresden, 1922, p. 95.
U.M. Schneede, George Grosz, Die Welt ist ein Lunapark, 1977, no. 105.
U.M. Schneede, George Grosz, His life and work, New York, 1979, p. 171, no. 97 (illustrated in reverse, p. 66; dated 1920).
George Grosz, Berlin-New York, exh. cat., Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1995, p. 153 (illustrated).
The Berlin of George Grosz, Drawings, Watercolours and Prints 1912-1930, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1997, p. 9, no. 8 (illustrated; dated 1920).
Kamakura, The Museum of Modern Art; The Itami City Museum of Art and Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, George Grosz, Berlin-New York, April-September 2000, no. II-38 (illustrated, p. 89).
Rome, Académie de France à Rome, Villa Medici, George Grosz, Berlino-New York, Tra Visioni e Realtà, May-July 2007, p. 114, no. 131 (illustrated in color).

Brought to you by

Sarah Wendell
Sarah Wendell

Lot Essay

Ralph Jentsch has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

During the years 1920-1922, while Grosz was making watercolors and drawings in his most caustically satirical manner, many of which would be published in folio Ecce Homo, he also created a remarkable series of pictures of an altogether different kind, which were more visionary than illustrative in their purpose. He temporarily set aside the expressionistic style, spiked with cubo-futurist elements and taking its provocatively insouciant attitude from Dadaism, which he had developed since end of the First World War. Instead he painted pictures that embody an alternative but no less radical and uncompromising brand of modernism, taking a formal approach which reflects the mechanistic, purist and constructivist trends which were coming to the fore at that moment. He referred to these paintings and watercolors as "Meinen neuen Bildern" ("my new pictures") in an article by this title which he wrote for the Berlin journal Das Kunstblatt in 1921. Grosz recast the figure and its environment in an idealized and nearly abstract conception which is unique in his oeuvre, and to which he never turned again. It is one measure of the rarity of these works that, until now, none has featured at international auction for a least a quarter century.

The aptly titled Der neue Mensch is one of the key works of this short-lived but signal phase, in which Grosz created presciently emblematic images that mirror and give form to the utopian and collectivistic aspirations of the inter-war period. Ralph Jentsch has described these precisely drawn pictures as being "automatic" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2008, p. 111) because the figures that inhabit them possess the featureless aspect of energized mechanical automatons. These men are bold and determined social engineers, the architects of a new order, who attempt to formulate and enact a far-reaching and effective revolutionary program for present and future human society.

These pictures stand in stark contrast to the actual conditions that beset the fledging Weimar republic in the years following the end of the First World War, as left- and right-wing factions fought pitched battles in the streets for possession of the soul and future of the German nation. Grosz joined the communist party and plunged into the very thick of it, only by luck evading arrest and likely summary execution during the ill-fated Spartacist uprising in 1919. Around the time he painted Der Neue Mensch, he had just come away from the ordeal of his first trial for offending the establishment with his unrelentingly acerbic drawings. The government had prosecuted him for defaming the Reichswehr, the newly reconstituted armed forces, in his folio Gott mits Uns ("God with Us"--the traditional motto of the Germany military), which Malik-Verlag published in 1920. He was convicted, but avoided imprisonment, getting off with a fine and confiscation of the printer's plates.

The "new pictures" represent Grosz's desire to postulate a rationalist and idealistic vision of social evolution that would counter the images of rampant violence and class warfare that was playing out everywhere around him. His sympathies lay entirely with the interests of the working class. In his article Zu meinem neuen Bildern he pointed out that "The artistic revolutions of painters and poets are certainly interesting and aesthetically valuable--but still, in the last analysis, they are studio problems and many artists who earnestly torment themselves about such matters end up by succumbing to skepticism and bourgeois nihilism... What should you do to give content to your paintings? Go to a proletarian meeting; look and listen how people there, people just like you, discuss some small improvement of their lot. And understand--these masses are the ones who are reorganizing the world, not you! But you can work with them And that way you could give your art a content which is supported by the revolutionary ideals of the workers" (trans. in C. Harrison and P. Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990, Oxford, 1992, pp. 270-271).

The New Man whom Grosz has summoned into action in this watercolor strides purposefully into his studio, to resume work on a design for a piston-driven, engine-like machine that stands on his drawing board. A few implements of his profession are visible; the workplace is otherwise uncluttered and orderly. The simplicity of this space and its precisely ruled features, laid out within a rigorous perspectival format, suggest the unencumbered clarity of vision that the New Man is bringing to his task. The presence of the punching ball, modeled on one that Grosz kept in his own studio (fig. 1), underscores that the New Man is physically fit and has completely disciplined himself for this endeavor, and that he possesses the personal strength and an aggressive bent of mind that will see his work to its conclusion. This watercolor is in fact closely related to a large oil painting entitled Der Boxer, also done in 1921 (fig. 2). Grosz wrote in Zu meinem neuen Bildern: "I am trying in my so-called works of art to construct something with a completely realistic foundation. Man is no longer an individual to be examined in subtle psychological terms, but a collective, almost mechanical concept. Individual destiny no longer matters. Just like the ancient Greeks, I would like to create absolutely simple sport symbols which would be so easily understood that no commentary would be necessary" (ibid., p. 271).

Grosz was responding in his way to the rappel à l'ordre, the "call to order," a classicizing trend that came to dominate thinking in the arts following the First World War. Proponents of this idea sought to re-impose simplicity and order on a world in disarray, no less so in the arts, amid competing factions of cubists, futurists, expressionists, and most recently, dadaists. The influence of the Italian Metaphysical painters on German artists became paramount at this juncture. In 1921 Mario Broglio, editor of the group's journal Valori Plastici, toured a show in Germany titled "Young Italy," including paintings by de Chirico (fig. 3), Carrà, Morandi, and others. Grosz wrote in his article, "In my efforts to develop a clear and simple style, I can't help drawing closer to Carrà," while nonetheless pointing out, "everything which is metaphysical and bourgeois about Carrà's work repels" (ibid.). Grosz eliminated the timeless and mythic elements from Metaphysical painting, while projecting its preference for architectural simplicity and pictorial clarity into a completely modern and urban context (fig. 4). Grosz wrote: "I am suppressing colour. Lines are used in impersonal, photographic way to construct volumes. Once more stability, construction, and practical purpose--e.g. sport, engineer and machine --but devoid of Futurist romantic dynamism" (ibid.). Grosz even devised an impersonalized stamped signature for these new pictures (seen in the present watercolor at lower left), and used the term construiert ("constructed") to describe their execution.

The New Man in Grosz's pictures of this period has his counterpart in the figures seen in the machine paintings of Léger, another modernist whose work was highly visible and well-regarded in Germany before and since the war. Featureless, mechanical men appear in Léger's rural paysages animés of 1920-1921. The machine design in Der neue Mensch resembles one of Picabia's dadaist mechanical drawings. Grosz also admired the works and aims of the Russian avant-garde, especially the architectural projects of Rodchenko, Malevich and Tatlin. In 1922 Grosz undertook a five-month journey through Soviet Russia to observe firsthand the workings of the socialist experiment then in progress and still in its initial liberal and pluralist phase. Elsewhere in Germany, Heinrich Hoerle and Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, two leading artists in the Cologne Progressives group, had begun to depict figures in an abstracted, constructivist style, while Oskar Schlemmer was developing a similar conception of the human figure at the Bauhaus in Weimar. An android-like vision of modern man features in Karel Capek's play R.U.R. ("Rossum's Universal Robots"), which premiered in Prague in 1921. Capek invented the word "robot" (from the Czech robota -- "work"), which quickly entered popular usage.

Grosz's experiment in idealized and utopian imagery lasted only a short time. Once he had set it down, there was little more he could add to it. Disquieting observations he had made during his Russian trip led Grosz to become wary of any one-party state make-over of society, however well-intentioned its goals, and in 1923 he withdrew from the German communist party. There had already been a sinister implication in some of the new pictures, in which he realized how easily his vision of a mechanistic society might be co-opted and perverted by a conspiracy of all-powerful militarists and industrialists (fig. 5). In time such images would come to stand for the dark side of modern collectivist agendas and the rise of fascism. But most importantly, while he was at work on the "new pictures," Grosz realized he could not side-step for long the everyday drama being played out in the streets of Berlin, which cried out for his attention and demanded treatment in his acutely observed pen and ink drawings and watercolors. Grosz included the most trenchant of these images in Ecce Homo, which was published in 1922. In the face of reality and the pressing issues of the day, Grosz's vision of the New Man had already become a passing dream.

(fig. 1) George Grosz working out with his punching ball in his Berlin studio, 1920.
(fig. 2) George Grosz, Der Boxer, 1921. Formerly in the Schlesisches Museum der bildenden Kunst, Breslau, and confiscated during the Nazi Degenerate Art campaign; present location unknown.
(fig. 3) Giorgio de Chirico, Le vaticinateur (The Seer), 1914-1915. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
(fig. 4) George Grosz, Construction, 1920. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.
(fig. 5) George Grosz, Republickanische Automaten, 1920. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

More from Impressionist Modern Works on Paper

View All
View All