Ralph Jentsch has kindly confirmed that this work will be included in his forthcoming catalogue raisonn currently in preparation.
Portrt John Frste is one of a small series of Neue Sachilkeit masterpieces that Grosz painted between 1925 and 1926. Executed in a meticulously observed style that explores every detail and nuance of its subject with impassive clarity, this outstanding portrait is, like Otto Dix's 1926 portrait of the journalist Sylvia Von Harden, a work that captures the atmosphere of the era in which it was painted.
In November 1926, Grosz wrote to his friend Mark Neven DuMont: "I paint a lot and am liking it. A difficult business and I have a whole lot of problems ahead of me. I am busy studying technique. I am trying a mixed technique. First tempera and then glazes of oil la Van Eyck. I prepare the canvas myself and make emulsions out of egg, linseed oil, Damar varnish, vinegar and clove oil and then experiment. I am especially interested in portraiture and am working on a few different ones....."
Grosz's shift in style in the mid-1920s reflected the artist's growing respect for the traditional techniques of the old masters and an increased concern with the representation of reality in a more objective and realist manner. Alongside the work of Dix, this new approach was almost solely responsible for the defining of the tendency that became known as the Verist wing of the Neue Sachilkeit and reflected the contemporary shift in the mood of avant-garde artists away from what they considered to be the tired and artificial inwardness of Expressionism. "My aim is to be understood by everyone." Grosz wrote in 1925, "I reject the 'depth' that people demand nowadays, into which you can never descend without a veritable diving bell crammed with cabalistic bullshit and intellectual metaphysics. This expressionist anarchy has got to stop.... a day will come when the artist will no longer be this bohemian, puffed-up anarchist, but a healthy man working in clarity within a collectivist society." (Art is in Danger, 1925)
Sent by Grosz to Galerie Flechtheim on 28 January 1927, Portrt John Frste belongs to a small series of portraits that Grosz made of his close friends and family and is probably the only one to remain in private hands. The complete series consists of the Portrait of Max-Herrmann-Niesse, (Stdtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim), Portrait of Walter Mehring (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp), Portrait of Felix.J.Weil (L.A.County Museum of Art), Portrait of Lotte Schmalhausen (The Grosz Estate), and two lost portraits of Grosz's mother and another lost portrait of his publisher and lifelong friend Wieland Herzefelde. In the context of the well-known figures depicted in these portraits, relatively little is known about this debonaire looking one-eyed man.
John Frste was a satirical writer, architect and draughtsman. Born Jomar Frste, like so many other dissaffected and American-loving intellectuals of his generation who were against the First World War, (John Heartfied, Bert Brecht, Walt Mehring and Grosz himself) Frste anglicised his first name to John during the hostilities. A friend of the Herzfelde brothers since 1907 and their days in Wiesbaden, he first met Grosz through the circle of artists and writers that associated with Franz Pfempfert's radical anti-war periodical "Die Aktion". While stationed at the front Frste contributed satirical poems to Pfemfert's weekly magazine between 1914 and 1916 and also wrote for the Dresden magazine "Menschen".
In 1917, joining forces with Grosz, the Herzfelde brothers, Walt Mehring and Carl Einstein, Frste - though never officially a member - was part of the "Club-Dada" team that put together the now legendary Dada publication Jedermann sein eigner Fussball and the even more bitingly satirical periodical Die Pleite - both of which were immediately and repeatedly banned by the authorities between March 1919 and January 1920.
In the 1920s Frste became an employee of Der Knppel and later, between 1926 and his early death from tuberculosis in 1932, for the satirical magazine Simplicissmus. Wieland Herzfelde described Frste as "tall, dark elegant and melancholic" while Grosz referred to him as "the poet, John Frste, the monologist" on account of his glass eye and his evidently higher opinion of Frste's literary talents.
Though often ill and impoverished, Frste seems to have remained close to Grosz throughout the twenties. Sylvia von Harden recalls that it was Frste who first introduced her to Grosz and in the year following Grosz's portrait of his writer friend, Grosz was one of Frste's few friends when the writer's long battle against tuberculosis forced him into hospital. Grosz wrote to Otto Schmalhausen at this time,"I like Frste very much, despite his strange way of being distracted. I appreciate his talent and his honest manner and I am a little angry with Wieland's failure - and that Frste finds so little support. I would rather publish 6 volumes of Frste than one volume of Gorki or Sinclair."
Grosz's growing impatience with Communsim since his traumatic visit to Russia in 1922 and in particular with the superficiality of many of his Communist friend's lofty ideals of brotherhood is later recorded in another letter written to Schmalhausen lamenting Frste's unhappy circumstances and his friends unwillingness to help him. "I have sent Frste 10 dollars" Grosz wrote, "..... I have also reminded the "communists" John, Wiz, Rudi and Hans about their "brotherly" duties - god damn it!. What a bunch of bullshitters - when at the same moment that such a poor haggler is struck down, no-one makes a move. Yet evening after evening they sit at their usual tables complaining about the brutal civic exploitation. "Heart" is a word that they now frown upon. They say "I deny feeling for others, comrade! As a communist I am a follower of an economic ideology (Weltanschauung) - one which has proved that philanthropy is counter-revolutionary. Only a completely united international proletariat" - (as they get drunker and drunker) - "can proceed in solidarity..." that is how they now always talk at their parties and congresses...... each one of them should have a few pennies for this poor lung-whistler......I believe it better to help those who have not quite been made for this life and in this respect I also call on you. John lies in the Pfalzburgerstrasse, 35....." (letter to Schmalhausen from Cassis sur Mer, Sept.1927 ).
One of the only other mentions of Grosz's association with John Frste comes from Erwin Blumenfeld who recalls in his memoirs a notorious party held in Grosz's studio in 1920 at which Frste and other select members of the Club-Dada were present. Eleven men in total were invited. Grosz then made a poster that read "Well-built society girls with film talents invited to a studio party, Studio Grosz, 8pm, Evening dress" and he and Blumenfeld paraded with it up and down the main streets of Berlin. More than fifty young would-be film stars turned up and the resultant wild and debauched party reportedly lasted for two days.
Though Frste is now a largely forgotten figure, Grosz's portrait of this strange man is not only the most striking of his outstanding 1926 series of portraits of his friends and colleagues but also the one that seems to tell more about the paradoxical era in which he lived. With his concentrated stare emphasised by the spiralling vein standing out on his forehead, with his slicked-back hair and his glass eye, his pursed and possibly rouged lips, Grosz's portrait of Frste powerfully conveys a sense of both the poverty and the decadence of the Weimar Republic. An affected and slightly dandified sense of style - close to Grosz's own heart - one that attempts to rise above the grey mundanity of the everyday - is conveyed by Frste's elegant pose and loose fitting American clothes. Yet at the same time the gritty reality of the struggle of urban life is also clearly represented in the neurotic throbbing veins of Frste's hands and in the gaunt features of his eccentric and striking face.