Ralph Jentsch has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
All around the world war rages and in the centre is this nervous city in which so much presses and shoves, so many people and streets and lights and colours and interests: politics and music hall, business and yet also art, field grey, privy councilors, chansonettes, and right and left, and up and down, somewhere, very far away, the trenches, regiments storming over to attack, the dying, submarines, zeppelins, airplane squadrons, columns marching on muddy streets, Hindenburg and Ludendorff,…Flanders and the Russian Revolution, America, the Anzacs and the poilus, the pacifists and the wild newspaper people. And all ending up in the half-darkened Friedrichstrasse, filled with people at night, unconquerable…still not yet dishonoured, despite the prostitutes who pass by. If a revolution were to break out here, a powerful upheaval in this chaos, barricades on Friedrichstrasse, or the collapse of the distant parapets, what a spark, how the mighty, inextricably complicated organism would crack, how like the Last Judgment! And yet we have experienced, caused precisely this to happen... That’s the world war all right.’
Harry Graf Kessler, 18 November 1917
Gefährliche Strasse (Dangerous Street) is a picture of the First World War as it played out on the streets of Berlin. A dark and hauntingly evocative portrait of an entire epoch in decline, it is one of the finest of an outstanding series of oil paintings, all depicting the city night, that George Grosz made between the spring of 1917 and the end of the war in November 1918. Numbering in total around twenty paintings, (the majority of which are now either lost or destroyed), these famous, often nightmare-like pictures of the city rank among the finest of all Grosz’s achievements. They are works of art that have come to fix the image of Berlin in the popular imagination and to define the traumatic era within which they were made.
A visionary fusion of Expressionist fervour and Cubo-Futurist fragmentation, these dynamic, angular cross-sections of gritty, urban form and imagery conjure a fractured and simultaneist image of war-time Berlin as a frenetic, bubbling cauldron of decadence, death, gaudy glamour and crime. Often suffused by an all-encompassing field of electric red light that falls over everything in the manner of Edgar Allen Poe’s story of the Masque of the Red Death, these hell-fire visions of city life offer a sequence of kaleidoscopic portraits of modernity gone mad. They are essentially, as the Expressionist poet, Theodor Däubler first championed them, ‘apocalyptic pictures’: dystopian visions of metropolitan life that reveal the Babylon of Berlin to be what another contemporary critic, (the writer and philosopher, Salomo Friedländer), wittily referred to as a ‘Dadantesque Inferno’.
Painted during the last months of the First World War, in July 1918, Gefährliche Strasse is one of the last and most accomplished of this famous series of apocalyptic paintings of Berlin. Unlike some of Grosz’s earlier, more deliberately crude and sketchily-executed works in this series, there is a cooler and more measured sense of assuredness and stability about the way in which this deliberately disorientating and fragmented vision of a dark and dangerous Berlin street has been depicted. Employing a style that is reflective of both the complete command of the oil medium that Grosz had by this time acquired and also of the more focused, moralizing sense of political purpose that his work had begun to pursue, the forms, figures and rich colour combinations of this painting are all rendered with a new-found clarity and precision. Such qualities are also to be found in Grosz’s drawings of this period as they moved away from the deliberately crude and scratchy, graffiti-based style of the early war years towards a sharper, more acidic and penetrative use of a single, bitingly elegant line. Collectively, all this progressive refining of his technique in 1918, towards what Carl Einstein was to memorably describe as a manner of ‘cool execution’, reflects something of the so-called ‘return to order’ that began toward the end of the war. It marks a sharpening of focus on Grosz’s part that anticipates the apparent ‘sachlichkeit’ or ‘objectivity’ of his ‘Verist’ paintings of the 1920s. Gefährliche Strasse is, in this respect, a work that supports Roland März’s observation that ‘the more the horror increased towards the end of the war, the more disciplined and cold became Grosz’s handwriting and awareness of the age.’
At the time that Grosz painted Gefährliche Strasse, in the summer of 1918, it was clear to almost everyone, save perhaps a blinkered few within the ruling establishment, that Germany had lost the war. The last great German offensive had been launched in the spring of 1918, but had ultimately proven a failure and squandered the nation’s last reserves. By the time that Grosz set to work on Gefährliche Strasse in July, newly-arrived American troops were then amassing in vastly superior numbers, on the now weakened German front lines. Daily life in Berlin had for some time reflected this ever-increasingly desperate state of affairs. Grosz, like many of his generation, had long before recognized and predicted that his was ‘an epoch sailing down to its destruction’. Since as early as 1915, in fact, he had been venting his anger and giving form to the burgeoning catastrophe of the age in a stream of bitter poems, drawings, watercolours and oil paintings almost all of which portrayed life in Berlin to be a gradual descent into hell. In 1916, in the midst of the war, he had officially Anglicized his name from ‘Georg Gross’ to the more American ‘George Grosz’: self-affirming his deep sense of being an outsider in Germany and provocatively appearing to ally himself with its wartime adversaries. By the summer of 1918, through his pseudo-militaristic role as the ‘Marshall’ of Berlin’s Club Dada, Grosz had become actively engaged in open opposition to the German authorities. Dada, which in Berlin was to find itself in the midst of a real revolution in 1918 and allied to the newly-formed Communist Party of Germany (the KPD), was to take on a far more confrontational and openly political approach in its attempts to counter the continuing madness of the war with a nonsense and insanity all of its own.
In terms of Grosz’s painting, such activities were to culminate and to coalesce in August 1918 with the creation of a vast modern-day altarpiece on the theme of Germany’s current catastrophe. This was the largest and most ambitious oil painting of the Berlin night that Grosz was ever to paint. Dedicated ‘to Germany’, this memorable but now lost masterpiece was entitled, after the poet Heine, Deutschland ein Wintermärchen (Germany a Winter’s Fairy Tale) and formed the centerpiece of the Dada movement’s greatest collective protest against its times: the now legendary International Dada Fair, held in Berlin in 1920. Completed in July of 1918, Gefährliche Strasse is this famous painting’s immediate precursor. Like Deutschland ein Wintermärchen, it articulates a similar theme and in some ways even serves as a kind of blueprint, albeit on a much smaller scale, for this larger and more expansive painting. Depicting the busy, nocturnal streets of wartime Berlin as if they are an entity about to explode, Gefährliche Strasse even shares some of the same characters and motifs that were to appear in Deutschland ein Wintermärchen: not least the angry profile of Grosz himself glaring out of the night from the bottom corner of the picture.
The apocalyptic mood of Grosz’s great city paintings of the war years has its roots in much of the Expressionist art and literature of the pre-war period – in the visionary landscapes and city paintings of Ludwig Meidner and the, often cosmic, ‘catastrophe’ poems of Café des Westens writers like Georg Heym, Jakob van Hoddis and Alfred Lichtenstein. Similarly, much of the simultaneity and Cubo-Futurist fragmentation so evidently on display in Grosz’s city pictures, along with their rich, radiant colour, derives from Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower pictures and Futurist paintings like Umberto Boccioni’s Laughter, of 1911, which Grosz had been impressed by when he saw it at the Galerie der Sturm in 1913. In contrast to these precedents, however, the dark content of Grosz’s city paintings was something that stemmed entirely from the artist’s own mindset; from his witnessing, first-hand, the moral and physical decline of Berlin all around him during the war years and, more recently, from his own personal experience of the conflict.
Grosz had returned to Berlin in May 1917 after being discharged for a second time from the army. Previously, between November 1914 and May 1915, he had served briefly as a Grenadier but, horrified by his experiences even before he saw action, had been given a temporary discharge from the army following an operation for severe sinusitis. In January 1917, Grosz was, however, redrafted into the Guben III/10 battalion of the Landes Infantrie and reluctantly sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, where he was supposed to train recruits and guard Russian prisoners. Almost immediately, Grosz had found himself unable to cope with the absurdities of military life. Forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, he was then sentenced to death before being reprieved, at the last minute, through the timely intervention of his patron Count Harry Kessler. Grosz then underwent an ‘Idiot’s Test’ and was ultimately declared mentally unfit to wear the Kaiser’s uniform and was discharged once more.
When he returned to civilian life in Berlin on 20th May 1917 therefore, Grosz brought with him a distinctly caustic view of the so-called sanity and wisdom of the German military and all and any other authorities still intent upon perpetuating the madness and mass–murder of the war. Grosz’s profound cynicism was also reinforced by all that he observed in the German capital on his return. ‘The Berlin to which I returned, he wrote, ‘was a cold grey city, the busy cafés and wine cellars merely accentuating the gloom of the dark unheated residential districts. The self-same soldiers who frequented the former, singing, dancing and clinging to the arms of prostitutes in a drunken stupor, could later be seen weary with the dirt of the trenches still on them, dragging their feet and their packs from one station to another. How right Swedenborg was, I thought, when he argued that heaven and hell are found side by side here on earth... The collapse of Germany was only a matter of time. All the fine phrases were now no more than stale, rank printer's ink on brown substitute paper. I watched it all from my studio in Südende, living and drawing in a world of my own.’
Amongst its many effects, the war had transformed the nocturnal streets of Berlin into a sexual hunting ground. It is this aspect of the city that Grosz addresses in Gefährliche Strasse. The Friedrichstrasse, in particular, Grosz recalled, was, ‘alive with whores. They stood in the doorways like sentinels and whispered their standard: “Want a date sweetie?” Those were the days of large feather hats and boas, and pushed-up bosoms. A dangling handbag was the sign of their guild.’ In addition to this, as Berlin’s first sexologist, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld was to point out in his ‘Sexual History of the World War’, the great absence of men from the cities of Europe during the war had led to an increasingly crude and aggressive sexual behavior amongst many women. Feeling ‘compelled to make the greatest efforts to lure, in the great combat for men’ Hirschfeld noted, the behaviour of women, ‘gave to life in the great cities during the war a special character [and] the sexual aggressiveness imposed upon the women by the dearth of men frequently assumed ludicrous forms. Externally, it showed itself in the arresting costumes worn by women everywhere, and the disproportionate use of cosmetics.’ Much of this new, more open and aggressive sense of sexuality is encapsulated in the exaggerated, caricature-like figures of Berlin’s streetwalking women that Grosz presents in his pictures. The garishly colourful and overly made-up figure of the whore in Gefährliche Strasse is a fine example. But, the exotic and elaborate fashions of these street women did not extend to the see-through clothes that Grosz so often depicts. Such clothes were a pictorial x-ray-device that Grosz repeatedly used in his pictures as a way to emphasize the lustful workings of the male gaze in action.
After the disastrous ‘turnip winter’ of 1916/17 when many Berliners had come close to starvation, widespread poverty and malnutrition ran rife and the city streets began to fill with street-beggars, prostitutes, (often masquerading as war-widows) and black-market profiteers. Berlin’s famous street-walking prostitutes had, even before the war, always been perceived as a poignant symbol of societal malaise and of an inherent sickness at the heart of Imperial German society. But now, with their ranks swelled immensely by women of all-classes who had fallen upon hard times and accompanied by a phenomenal increase in the spread of venereal diseases during the war - (some claim as many as 60% of Germans became infected) - the heady mix of sex and danger on Berlin’s streets only came to reinforce the widespread sense of apocalypse, plague, and of the end of times. In the last months of the war, the view expressed by Dada founder Hugo Ball about the complete rupture with the past wrought by the war, was one that was now shared by many, not just avant-garde circles. ‘An epoch has disintegrated,’ Ball wrote. ‘There are no columns and supports, no foundations any more - they have all been blown up...Convictions have become prejudices. There are no more perspectives in the moral world. Above is below, below is above...The principles of logic, of centrality, unity and reason have been unmasked as postulates of a power-craving theology. The meaning of the world has disappeared...The world has shown itself to be a blind juxtapositioning and opposing of uncontrolled forces.’
It is all this that Grosz addresses in Gefährliche Strasse - a picture that presents a small cross-section of contemporary Berlin as an illustrative microcosm of a wider world comprised solely of crude, primal, ‘uncontrollable and opposing forces’ coinciding with one another on the bleak, stone, streets of the city. At the heart of the painting is the spectral figure of a uniformed soldier, his skull-like face confronting the viewer like an apparition of Death. He appears to be wandering aimlessly and vacant-faced amidst the shadowy red light of the big city night. Above his head and illuminated as if they offered some meaning are the numbers - ‘III’ and ‘69’. These are perhaps intended to indicate his regiment - Grosz’s recent battalion number was III/10 for instance – or, alternatively, they may indicate a street address or even the thoughts on his mind. To the right of this grim, expressionless and possibly also shell-shocked military man, walks the seemingly naked figure of a prostitute touting her trade. Vibrant, full of life and contrastingly colourful, with her face garishly made-up, she represents both his opposite and also perhaps his nemesis. Like so many of Grosz’s women, her clothes are transparent in order to emphasize her buxom, naked form and the fundamentally sexual nature of both her presence and her profession. Also, like so many of Grosz’s women, she too is a man-eater. She carries a human heart in her ‘dangling’ handbag, while all around her, the faces of the men leering at her are seen, in places at least, to be in the process of transforming into those of dogs. This woman is a Circe - the mythical temptress who turns men into swine - a figure that provokes lust and bestial behaviour in all whom she meets. Even the little dog that walks at her feet in this painting, for instance, is visibly turned on.
Circe is a common figure in much of Grosz’s work from this period. Ever since her first appearance in drawings Grosz made around 1912, the transformative power of the lust she engenders in all the men around her is shown to be one that, ultimately, only rebounds upon her, provoking bestial acts of violence and debauchery from her male victims. As so often in Grosz’s pictures of the city, much of this implicit violence is depicted as a universal force, bubbling just beneath the surface of things and here made visible through the sinister, partially-seen silhouettes in the windows of the city’s buildings. Despite its apparent complexities, therefore, Grosz shows us in this painting that, at its root, modern city life is little more than a base play between lust and violence. His vision of the world at this time was, he recalled, essentially simplistic and ‘could have been summed up as follows: all men are pigs. All that talk about ethics is eyewash, meant only for the stupid. Life has no meaning other than to satisfy one's hunger for food and women.’
The fact that Grosz is moralizing in Gefährliche Strasse and intends it to be seen as an allegory on this basic thesis is evidenced not just by his referencing of the mythical figure of Circe as his prostitute, but also by the way in which he presents himself in the painting. Grosz’s manifest disgust with the spectacle he depicts in Gefährliche Strasse is made clear by the appearance of his own scowling profile in the bottom right hand corner of the painting. Here, as he was also to do in Deutschland ein Wintermärchen, where he painted himself with an angry, red, apocalyptic moon burning against his temples, Grosz appears to be introducing the scene behind him as a kind of morality play. Both involved in the scene but also set apart from it, he is admonishing his audience, warning them that his painting is only a partial exaggeration: that, for the most part, it provides an accurate reflection of the current state of Germany and the dark times in which they are living.
‘I drew and painted out of a spirit of contradiction, and through my work I sought to convince the world that it, was ugly, sick and lying’, Grosz wrote about his pictures of this period. ‘What interested me, was the work of the committed outsiders and moralists of painting: Hogarth, Goya, Daumier and their like.’ Grosz also told Harry Kessler at this time that he had painted a work like Deutschland ein Wintermärchen in the hope that it would one day be hung in schools. Grosz ‘wants to become the German Hogarth’, Kessler recalled after a visit to the artist’s studio to see this picture. ‘Deliberately realistic and didactic’, he wants, ‘to preach, improve and reform. Art for Art’s sake does not interest him at all... He really is a Bolshevist in the guise of a painter. He loathes painting and the pointlessness of painting as practiced so far, yet by means of it wants to achieve something quite new, or more accurately, something that it used to achieve (through Hogarth or religious art), but which got lost in the nineteenth century. He is reactionary and revolutionary in one, a symbol of the times.’
Marking the culmination of the series of oil paintings of the city that Grosz had begun in late 1916, paintings such as Gefährliche Strasse, Widmung an Oskar Panizza and Deutschland ein Wintermärchen which Grosz made towards the end of the war all emulate the moralizing format of the religious allegories of old-master painters like Brueghel, Grünewald or Bosch –artists whom Grosz now felt more akin to than he did to many modernists. Not only, in this respect, was Deutschland ein Wintermärchen painted in the form of a modern-day altarpiece, for example, but it was also a deliberate aping of a Last Judgement. Its three ‘pillars of society’ (in the form of the General, the priest and the schoolteacher) are replacements for the figures of saints in a religious altarpiece and are shown by Grosz to be propping up the ‘holy’ German burger instead of a Madonna, while a sailor (a symbol of revolution) and a prostitute (a symbol of decadence), hover around his head like demons. Similarly, Gefährliche Strasse can also be seen in this context to be a modern take on an old-master ‘allegory of love’ or even, a version of that most perennial theme in the Germanic tradition of art: Death and the Maiden.
In the first monograph on Grosz written by Willi Wolfradt in 1921, Wolfradt wrote of paintings like Gefährliche Strasse that, if one looked ‘deeper’ into them, one could see that they were not just portraits of contemporary Berlin but indicative of more archetypal themes like ‘Hell and Death’. Highlighting Gefährliche Strasse and Widmung an Oskar Panizza of 1917 in particular, in this respect, Wolfradt commented on how the figure of Death appeared to be everywhere, ‘grinning out of the corners and behind the faces’ in these works. Death is, of course, implicit within ‘the hearse, the hanged man and the skeleton’ in Widmung an Oskar Panizza, Wolfradt wrote, but he is ‘even more terrifyingly to be found within the tired, fleshy greed of a prostitute or the base brutality of a security officer… [where] the atmosphere is charged with murder [and] love slaughters its own victims. Grosz leads us across the street, where busy people, deaf to the bubbling of the apocalypse all around them, hurry past while hunched fellows gather around some wench, undressing her with their eyes, barely able to control their rising, animal lust amidst the ghostly dancing lights of the city’s world-traffic.’
Looking back on such pictures in 1925, Grosz himself said that he saw them as part of what he called his continuing ‘struggle’ against ‘the present middle ages’. On a visit to Grosz that he made in November 1917, Harry Kessler recalled the artist telling him that the two ‘masters’ guiding him at this time were ‘Breughel and Seurat’. It is indeed not Hogarth, so much as the pictures of Pieter Breughel that Grosz’s apocalyptic city paintings of 1918 most closely resemble. From his ‘Triumph of Death’-like Widmung an Oskar Panizza, completed in June, to Gefährliche Strasse, made in July, and the great altarpiece Deutschland ein Wintermärchen, painted between August and November 1918, the similarities between these two artists’ work are many. And this is not just due to the way in which both artists had a habit of secularizing and making contemporary many of the traditional religious themes of painting. Both Grosz and Breughel are artists who present a holistic vision of humanity as theatre. They both like to depict the vulgar crowd in all its myriad forms and fascinating detail, but they also appear to view it remotely - usually from above –showing it as a homogenous collective: as if it were some alien species from which they themselves remain separate. They are also both keen observers of the minutiae of everyday life, though it is, of course, Grosz who is the more disgusted and disillusioned by what he sees. Grosz’s pictures appear to seethe and shake with anger while Brueghel’s tend to breathe with a calmer and more benevolent sense of compassion. But, both artists were men who, almost in spite of themselves, clearly revelled in a frank and honest representation of life’s telling details and the often humorous and levelling vulgarity of the common folk.
In contrast to Breughel, the influence of George Seurat on Grosz is less often noted, though this is an influence that is perhaps at its most visible in his last city oils of the war period and especially so in Gefährliche Strasse. The evident care that Grosz has taken with the rich but subtle, nocturnal colouring of this painting, its shimmering patterns of lines of electric lights, vibrant, back-lit outlines and the overall cohesion of this subtly complex composition are all features reminiscent of Seurat’s own meticulous play with light and colour. Indeed, in both its structure and its twilight colouring, Gefährliche Strasse closely echoes Seurat’s 1887-8 Parade de cirque as well as much of the twilight mood of several of the French artist’s café-concert drawings from 1886-7. In addition to this, Gefährliche Strasse was made at a time when Grosz had come to think that the best way to articulate the apparent disorder of the period was through a contrasting sense of order - in the form of the cold, objective clarity of mechanical precision. Writing to his friend Otto Schmalhausen in the spring of 1918 and signing himself under the pseudonym ‘Dr Maschin George Ventil’ (‘Dr. Machine George Valve,’) Grosz explained how he had now adopted a ‘mechanical’ way of looking at the chaos of their times. He had been inspired in this direction, he said, by his reading of J.V. Jensen’s 1905 novel Hjulet or The Wheel - a copy of which he also sent to Schmalhausen advising him that its worldview would help him gain a similar sense of clarity and perspective. Jensen’s novel, was one in which the immense mechanical power and modernity of America had been championed as a utopia driven by the ‘great wheel’ of its own perpetual Dionysian energy. From this book, Grosz evidently came to think, for a while at least, that a modern, scientific and mechanically precise approach to the production of his work, was not just the way of the future but also the best way of ensuring that the moralizing messages of his pictures hit home hardest.
Theodor Däubler was the first critic to note the increasing precision with which Grosz had begun to approach his work in 1918, pointing out in an article published in 1919 that the artist now appeared to have refined the more improvised fervour of his earlier Futurist-inspired paintings into a new, ‘calmer’, and ‘crystalized’ form of Futurism. Writing as if referring specifically to Gefährliche Strasse, Daübler noted that in spite of Grosz’s oft-stated political beliefs at this time about the fundamental uselessness of art and of painting being little more than a bourgeois enterprise, his most recent paintings were actually revealing of how much the artist ‘loves his paintings as his own inventions’. In his latest pictures, everything for Grosz, Däubler noted, now ‘had to be Tip-Top’. Grosz was now approaching his paintings with a fastidiousness that revealed how he had come to think of his pictures and the worldview they presented as ‘complex machinery’. Italian Futurism had now become passé, Däubler suggested. Where the Italians were still embracing painterliness, applying ‘too much impasto’ or allowing ‘their colours to bleed’ into one another, Grosz , Däubler said, was determined to bring ‘order’. ‘Light and its reflections’ were rendered ‘prismatically’, and Grosz’s command of darkness, (which is perhaps best seen in the exquisite tonal range that he has employed in Gefährliche Strasse), is portrayed using a carefully-nuanced balance of colours that magically radiate through a sequence of smoky ‘topaz tones’. ‘Today,’ Däubler finally exulted, it is Grosz that ‘brings the night into being before us all!’
For Harry Kessler, too, Grosz’s evident love of his craft in such works as Gefährliche Strasse was something that ultimately belied both the fierce ‘anti-art’ stance of his Dada politics of this time and the apparent bleakness of his societal vision. For Kessler, Grosz’s ‘devotion to the depiction of the repulsiveness of bourgeois philistinism’ was ‘merely the counterpart to some secret ideal of beauty that he conceals as though it was a badge of shame’. In his drawings, Kessler observed, Grosz would ‘harasses with fanatical hatred the antithesis to this ideal, which he protects from public gaze like something sacred.’ Grosz’s ‘whole art’, Kessler summised, was therefore, ‘a campaign of extermination against what is irreconcilable with his secret “lady love”. Instead of singing her praises like a troubadour, he does battle against her opponents with unsparing fury like a dedicated knight.’ It was only in his use of colour, Kessler suggested, that Grosz could not help but ‘let his secret ideal show through.’ As a result he concluded, Grosz was someone of ‘an excessively sensitive nature’ who had turned ‘outrageously brutal by reason of [such] sensibility’ but who has the extraordinary ‘talent for delineating this brutality creatively.’
It is this double-sided, perhaps even schizophrenic, love-hate relationship that Grosz had between his subject matter and his art that gives his city paintings their startling but also seductive power. And it is this quality of his work that is at its most acute and beguiling in Gefährliche Strasse where the stark polarities of the dangerous city night are rendered with the utmost craft and the fiercest precision.