George Grosz (1883-1959)
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George Grosz (1883-1959)


George Grosz (1883-1959)
signed and dated 'George Grosz Okt.1916' (lower left)
watercolour and pen and India ink on paper
Diameter: 15 1/8 x 19½ in. (38.4 x 49.5 cm.; irregular oval shape)
Executed in October 1916
Cabinet des Estampes Philosophique, Brussels.
Paul van Ostayen.
Private collection, Belgium, by 1925.
Galerie Michael Gärtner, Frankfurt.
Galerie Michael Haas, Berlin.
Acquired from the above; sale, Sotheby's, London, 24 June 2003, lot 264.
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner.
J. Ber Neumann, J.B. Neumanns Bilderhefte, vol. 4, Berlin, 1921 (illustrated).
Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Gesichter der Zeit, Ein Panorama aus Physiognomien in Zeichnung und Graphik, 1999 - 2000 (illustrated).
Rome, Académie de France, Villa Medici, George Grosz, Berlin-New York, May - July 2007, no. 64 (illustrated p. 63).
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Lot Essay

Ralph Jentsch has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

Gesellschaft is part of the series of drawings and paintings that George Grosz executed in 1916 on the subject of the Berlin coffee house, culminating in rare oils such as Café, 1916 (The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis) and Feiertag, 1917 (Location unknown), and shows the emergence in his art of the social criticism for which he is best known along with several of his most radical stylistic innovations. In 1916 Grosz had been discharged from military service and upon his return to Berlin, bitter and disillusioned after his wartime experiences, embarked on the greatest period of his artistic career: 'The breathing space I was given in the year from 1916 to 1917 was a most fruitful interlude in my career...I could feel the earth beneath my feet shaking, and its tremours were reflected in my oils and watercolours' (G. Grosz, A Small Yes and a Big No, The Autobiography of George Grosz, tr. A.J. Pomerans, London, 1983, p. 81).

A familiar face in artists' cafés such as the Cafés Austria, Josty, and Romanisches, and above all the Expressionist generation's headquarters, the Café des Westens, Grosz sketched, drew, wrote down and noted all that he saw around him in numerous sketches. Thus he began to catalogue the character and war-time atmosphere of the city's street-life in such a way that it soon emerges in his work as a ghost-train-like parade of recognisable if also disturbing 'types', such as the thugs, prostitutes and drunks of Gesellschaft. Doused in an acidic nightmarish yellow that Grosz once described in another poem of 1915 as 'hönisch' (scornful), a pervasive yellow lends the work a similarly sickly, uneasy and even jaundiced atmosphere. It is an atmosphere that is also born out in the details of sinister and disease-ridden faces parading through it.

Significantly, in this drawing Grosz introduces a radically new element, a kind of cinematic sense of motion and of busy simultaneous activity. The figures radiating around the central group of figures are shown in motion, each one walking in a conflicting direction to the others, lending a complex criss-cross sense of activity to the work that conjures a convincing sense of the hustle and bustle of a busy café. The other novel and possibly Futurist-derived compositional technique that Grosz applies in this work is that of the kaleidoscopic division of planes, which further this impression of looking through a keyhole or lens, and which is enhanced by the oddly jagged format of the work. These artistic devices lend his work a sense of disorientated immediacy and vitality. Grosz was a frequent visitor to the cinema and this, allied to the Futurists demand for an art filled with the dynamism and 'sacred simultaneity' of modern metropolitan life currently in vogue amongst the Berlin avant-garde, may well have fuelled Grosz's intentions.

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