Mädchen singend gellend
Irgendwo sitzt ein Soldat, der schläft.
Eine sagt: Miezeken, ick jehe mir einen Mann suchen!
Hüften hängen wie reife Trauben über die Kanten der Stühle
Sadisten lechzen nach hiebe
Junge Männer, Zuhälter
Mädchen, Amerikaner, Soldaten
Neger und eine 18jährige Kellnerin
(George Grosz circa 1916)
Ralph Jentsch has confirmed the authenticity of this painting. We are grateful to him for assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
'I had a blinkered hatred of the human race and I saw everything from the viewpoint of my little attic studio. Downstairs and all around me were members of the petty bourgeoisie, landlords and small business people, whose talk and ideas sickened me...I started with drawings that expressed the mood of hatred I was in. For example I drew a regular's table in a bar, surrounded by incurables, like fat, red masses of flesh crammed into ugly grey sacks. In search of a style to reproduce the bleak lovelessness of my subjects as starkly uncompromisingly as possible, I studied the most direct utterances of the artistic instinct. I copied the folk drawings in urinals, because they seemed to me to convey strong feelings with the greatest economy and immediacy. And so gradually I developed a knife-sharp style as a means of imparting my observations dictated by my utter misanthropy. On the streets, in cafés, in music halls, etc. I carefully stored my observations in little notebooks, also often subsequently analysing my impressions in writing...I projected a major three-volume study entitled 'The Ugliness of the Germans'' (George Grosz, remembering his return to Berlin in 1915, cited in 'Abwicklung', in exh. cat. George Grosz, Berlin, 1923).
Caféhaus is a rare and important early oil painting executed by George Grosz in 1915. One of only a few oil paintings by the artist to have survived the turbulent war period, it is an exciting recent discovery and a major addition to this vital period in the artist's history. Ralph Jentsch, who has said that he is very 'proud and happy' to be including Caféhaus in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Grosz's paintings, has written of this previously unknown painting that its recent discovery can be considered 'a sensation'.
The culmination of a number of drawings and sketches of Berlin café life that Grosz made during the height of the First World War, Caféhaus is one of the first oils that he ever painted. It is also perhaps the first of Grosz's paintings to show the emergence in his art of the social criticism for which he is best known and marks perhaps his first attempt to magnify this jaundiced vision of modern Germany onto a larger, more emotive and even cinematic scale.
What is believed to be Grosz's very first oil painting is a work, now lost, simply entitled Strasse painted in 1914. This painting is thought to be the only oil by Grosz to date from this year. In November 1914 Grosz was enlisted in the German army and it was not until May 1915, when he returned to Berlin on a temporary discharge from military service, that he was again able to paint in oils. In addition to the newly discovered Caféhaus, between May and December 1915 Grosz is known to have painted six oil paintings: they are; Café (also listed by Grosz as Das Kaffeehaus; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), Nachtstück (Nationalgalerie, Berlin), Paar im Zimmer (Private Collection, U.S.A), Der Strich (Private Collection, U.S.A.), Die Strasse (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) and Vorstadtstrasse (whereabouts unknown).
With the exception of Paar im Zimmer, which describes a sinister and debauched bedroom interior, the subject of all these 1915 paintings is the nocturnal street life of Berlin, from its cafés and bars to its dimly lit suburbs where syphilitic prostitutes and grim-faced criminals loiter at each corner. Greatly disillusioned by the trauma of his military experience and ever-fearful of the permanent threat of recall, in Berlin, Grosz's nascent hatred of his fellow Germans assumed ever greater proportions and he began to pour out his scornful visions of the decaying society all around him into thousands of drawings, watercolours and poems. His long-held desire to create a three-volume opus entitled 'The Ugliness of the Germans' now became merged, perhaps under the influence of Ludwig Meidner, whom he met sometime in the summer of 1915, with a desire to catalogue the ugly face of modern life in the metropolis. In a few cases, Grosz began to develop his drawings, working them up into oil paintings on this theme. As a number of Grosz's drawings from this time testify, Caféhaus is evidently the culmination of several works centring on the theme of a fat cigar-puffing capitalist and a mercantile and sycophantic whore.
On his return to Berlin, Grosz had moved into the suburban district of Südende and re-joined his art studies at the Berlin School of Arts and Crafts. He spent much of his spare time in the city's fashionable West End district where the bohemian cafés, bars, theatres and cinemas were to be found. From his drawings it is evident that Grosz frequented all kinds of establishments, from the seedy suburban bars and cafés that often served as pick-up joints to the smarter cafés and bars frequented by the city's writers and artists. A familiar face in artists' cafés such as the Cafés Austria, Josty, Romanisches, and above all the Expressionist generation's headquarters, the Café des Westens (or the Café Grossenwahn (Megalomania) as it was popularly known), Grosz, sketched, drew, wrote down and noted all that he saw around him in numerous sketches and in a series of bitter, sardonic poems. In this way he began to catalogue the character and war-time atmosphere of the city's street-life in such a way that it soon began to emerge in his work as a ghost-train-like parade of recognisable if also disturbing 'types'. Many of Grosz's pictures, particularly his more ambitious oil paintings, became the stage set for mini-dramas in which several of these 'types' - the cripples and war-profiteers, soldiers, criminals, sex-murderers and syphilitic whores, fat-cats, actresses, neurasthenic loners and variety artistes - all regularly appeared as a dark carnivalesque cast of characters. The 'hopeless harlequinade' that Grosz at this time described as being 'Germany's true face.'
The centrepiece of Caféhaus is a double act; the grotesque relationship between a fat cigar-puffing capitalist and the painted whore not too discreetly pleasuring him under the oval marble table-top of a typical though nondescript Berlin café. These two central figures - the fat 'uncle' and his young 'heavy-thighed' and mercantile admirer - frequent many of Grosz's drawings and poems from this period and serve as an eloquent and concise example of the pervasive moral decay then taking place in war-time Berlin. In the way that they appear here they also clearly serve as the prototype of the pig-faced capitalist and his 'Circe' that became such a recurring theme in Grosz's art in the hyper-inflationary era of the post-war years.
In many drawings of this period it is possible to trace Grosz's preoccupation with this theme and the graphic evolution of this couple right up into the form in which they emerge in Caféhaus. Of the many examples, the closest precedent to Caféhaus is a 1915 drawing in pen and coloured chalk entitled Ober zwei kleine Pils in which not just the central couple but many of the other characters in the painting appear. Fascinatingly, this drawing also reveals how Grosz has attempted, for the first time, to introduce a radically new element into the composition of the painting - a kind of cinematic sense of motion and of busy simultaneous activity. With the exception of the seated couples, all the standing figures are shown in motion, each one walking in a conflicting direction to the others. Radiating around the central couple, these figures, many of them partial and on the point of exiting the picture frame, lend a complex criss-cross sense of activity to the work that conjures a convincing sense of the hustle and bustle of a busy café. It is a device that Grosz later uses to great effect in his blood-red city paintings such as Metropolis of 1916-17. But here, when seen in comparison with the drawing Ober zwei kleine Pils, it is possible to see the origins of this technique emerging for the first time as Caféhaus takes on the appearance of a film still of the same scene, taken a second or two later. Grosz was, of course, 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.
The other novel and possibly Futurist-derived compositional technique that Grosz applies in this work is that of the multiple perspective. Similar to the technique employed in the Hirshhorn Museum's painting Café, Grosz provides a simultaneous double-viewpoint of the café interior; one looking down onto the scene from a height and the other looking up through the crowd towards the distance, as if from the perspective of one immersed within the crowded café itself. This double-viewpoint not only lends his work a sense of disorientated immediacy and vitality but it is one that mirrors Grosz's own personal perspective of Berlin at this time. Grosz, as he was to be in much of his work, was both a part of and aloof from the scene that he depicts. A young associate of many Expressionist painters and poets, he was both a frequenter of Berlin's busy night-time café scene and a lone misanthropic refugee from the war looking down upon mankind from the lofty heights of his attic studio.
In his poem Kaffeehaus which, though first published in 1918, may date from this period, Grosz expressed these very sentiments when he described himself as 'a machine whose pressure gauge was split in two' caught up in a 'coral necklace of red heads' and seeing life as a series of 'horrifying masks'. Doused throughout in an acidic nightmarish yellow that Grosz once described in another poem of 1915 as 'höhnisch' (scornful), this pervasive yellow lends Caféhaus 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, particularly that of the bowler-hatted Mackie-Messer 'type' exiting in the bottom left hand corner - a death's-head-like face of the evil night if ever there was one. The partial appearance of a criminal-looking figure, exiting the picture is a common device running throughout Grosz's art at this time and indeed, similar bowler-hatted villains are to be found in the 1915 paintings Nachtstücke, Vorstadtstrasse and Die Strasse, though none are as impressively rendered as the figure who appears here.
Looking on at the harsh and gruesome reality of his time in a way that few others were prepared to contemplate, Grosz was able to draw the accurate if also depressing conclusion that '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.' Painted at a time when Grosz was almost a complete unknown, Caféhaus is therefore both an historic and prophetic work as it is among the very first paintings of its time to reveal this uncomfortable truth.