Berlin in the early months of 1918 was a city of decadence and decline. Germany was lurching towards defeat in the First World War and — thanks to more than three years of Royal Navy blockades — teetering on the brink of starvation.
The city’s streets were teeming with beggars, prostitutes and black-market profiteers: symbols of the malaise in imperial German society as it entered its final days. The ranks of Berlin’s famous streetwalking prostitutes were now swelled with women of all classes who had fallen on hard times, and venereal disease was rife. Sex and death, it seemed, were everywhere.
The Berlin-born George Grosz (1893-1959) quickly recognised that his was ‘an epoch sailing down to its destruction’. It was, he said, ‘a time favourable for charlatans of all sorts, from meat substitute manufacturers to courtly lyric poets singing their war songs. Germany now shows her true face — a hopeless harliquinade’. In many ways, the sleazy glamour we’ve come to associate with Germany’s capital during the 1920s and early 1930s — through films such as Cabaret — emerged in the final months of war.
It was in this context, in July 1918, that the 25-year-old Grosz painted his haunting canvas, Gefährliche Straße (‘Dangerous Street’). Grosz’s early career had been interrupted by two spells of military service, the second ending with a nervous breakdown that invalided him out of action in 1917.
His experience at the front fostered within him a profound cynicism towards — and vigorous disgust for — German powers-that-be. He summed up the First World War as ‘years of mass insanity and slaughter’, feelings that were only reinforced by what he saw on returning to Berlin.
Gefährliche Straße is one of a series of around 20 paintings that Grosz made of the city at night between spring 1917 and November 1918. (Peace would be signed with the Allies on 11 November 1918, two days after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated as Emperor.) Around half of these works are now lost, with some of the missing paintings probably destroyed by the Nazis, who loathed Grosz’s work and labelled it ‘degenerate’.
Of the pictures known to have survived, six are now in major museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. An additional four are confirmed as being in private hands, of which Gefährliche Straße, which comes to auction in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in London on 5 February, is widely regarded as the finest.
Reminiscent of Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse, the ‘dangerous street’ of the work’s title is a nightmarishly dark and busy scene in which we meet a cross-section of characters, notably a uniformed, spectral-looking soldier with a skull-like face and a grim, vacant expression that might possibly be the consequence of shell-shock.
Of the figures to the soldier’s right, the standout is a prostitute touting her trade. Wearing little more than garish make-up, she has the ability to transform the faces of male admirers into those of dogs.
‘Gefährliche Straße is a painting of raw, uncontrollable forces colliding on the nocturnal streets of Berlin,’ says Robert Brown, International Head of Research at Christie’s. ‘The soldier and the prostitute function as archetypes of sex and death — the two main polarities of a society falling apart.’
The picture is suffused by smouldering red light, as if little fires are blazing throughout the street. Grosz fuses a near-visionary, Expressionist sense of drama with a Cubo-Futurist fragmentation of form to create a haphazard sense of the disjointed experience of modern city life.
As well as being clearly attuned to the latest artistic trends, Grosz was also evoking a long tradition of the grotesque in Northern European art, associated with the likes of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. ‘Grosz was very much a successor of Brueghel’s,’ confirms Brown. ‘He was somehow able to produce beautiful pictures out of scenes that depict humanity at its lowest.’
Gefährliche Straße was the immediate precursor to Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen (‘Germany, a Winter’s Fairy Tale’), Grosz’s most important painting of wartime Berlin at night, which he began in August 1918. The two works have much in common.
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Now lost, Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen was a mock altarpiece on the theme of the Last Judgment. Brown suggests that Gefährliche Straße is a modernist take on on the Old Master theme of ‘Death and the Maiden’.
Both are works that capture Berlin’s descent into moral and physical chaos, and both feature — in a bottom corner — the scowling profile of the artist himself, presumably intended as an expression of his dismay.