• George-grosz-hero
Illustration

An insight into a rare new book filled with the satirical acuity of George Grosz's illustrations

Posted by Bryony Quinn,

George Grosz was a German illustrator whose apolitical status before World War I was quickly reversed in light of the atrocites and social upheaval the next two decades would deliver. He was a satirist and a critic and his radical style coupled with ruthless attacks on society linked him closely to the Berlin Dada movement before he emigrated to New York. His style, almost futurist, was drawn with an acerbity and structural complexity that would mark him out as an accomplished draftsman and influencer of a great many illustrators and comics artists right up until today.

Very soon, Hayward publishing will be releasing a rare and special book – designed with typical adroitness by Richard Hollis – called The Big NO and featuring two particularly cutting portfolios of work by Grosz: Ecce Homo and Hintergrund. Both in their time, saw him prosecuted for obscenity, “blasphemy and defamation of the German military” and were mostly lost to the ineffable destruction of dissenting material undertaken by the Nazis.

The following text is a foreword written for the book by Hayward Touring’s senior curator, Roger Malbert, and describes the striking effect Grosz’s work had against the political and social landscape of the era. It is something the book, with its “chronology of important events in Germany” and contextual texts by Lutz Becker and Helen Luckett, continues in excellent style.

  • George-grosz-cover

    George Grosz: The Big NO – cover, Richard Hollis

  • George-grosz-5

    George Grosz: The Big NO. Courtesy The Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

  • George-grosz-3

    George Grosz: The Big NO. Courtesy The Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

In 1933, George Grosz had a narrow escape. He and his wife Eva left Germany on 12 January, arriving in New York ten days later. On 30 January, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and the very next day Nazi storm-troopers were smashing down Grosz’s studio door with axes. As their most hated ‘Bolshevik’ artist, he would surely have died.

George Grosz took justifiable pride in his role as a chronicler of Germany’s descent into tyranny and barbarism. Like Goya he could say, ‘I was there. I saw this.’

Yet he was not merely a witness, recording the vices and injustices of his time. His imagination was fired by disgust but also desire: hence the lascivious sexual scenes in the 1923 portfolio Ecce Homo (where the women often resemble his drawings of Eva and her sister Lotte), the minute attention to details of fashion, to the styles of shoes and cuts of lapel, reflecting his own dandyish tastes, and the ubiquitous bottle.

Grosz was implicated in the world he depicted; as he writes in his autobiography, ‘I made careful drawings of all these goings on, of all the people inside the restaurant and out, deluding myself that I was not so much a satirist as an objective student of nature. In fact, I was each one of the very characters I drew, the champagne-swilling glutton favoured by fate no less than the poor beggar standing with outstretched hands in the rain. I was split in two, just like society at large…’

Grosz painted and drew in a spirit of opposition, he said, to show the world that it was ‘ugly, diseased and perfidious’. His cynicism was born of despair at the catastrophe of World War I. As a Dadaist, his anti-aesthetic denied the palliative function of art and its appeal to civilisation’s higher values – beauty, reason, spiritual truth – while, on the ground, humanity was committing acts of inhuman cruelty on a grand scale.

From a political perspective, as a left-wing activist in the early 1920s, Grosz deployed his pen as a weapon of agitation in a political struggle. He kept his message simple and easily intelligible.

That he was better at caricaturing the enemy than portraying a positive alternative – a heroic, wholesome proletariat – was a feature of his negativity, and is perhaps what redeems him as a realist, rather than merely a propagandist.

What makes Grosz unique is that he combines the acuity and malicious wit of a brilliant satirist with the formal innovativeness of the Modernist avant-garde.

Roger Malbert. Senior Curator, Hayward Touring

Although George Grosz produced some of the iconic paintings of early Modernism, he was not interested in the prestige of the artist or the hierarchical distinction between fine art and illustration. In fact, in the early 1920s, he chose to become primarily an illustrator, believing this to be a more effective mode of communication.

Caricature is widely disdained as a low, popular genre, dependent on crude stereotypes and a primitive belief in physiognomy as revealing inner character. There are certainly generic subjects in Grosz’s work – stark contrasts of rich and poor, elderly lechers and young women – which are among the perennial themes of graphic satire, both of the moralising variety and the scurrilous and comic.

  • George-grosz-10

    George Grosz: The Big NO. Courtesy The Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

What makes Grosz unique is that he combines the acuity and malicious wit of a brilliant satirist with the formal innovativeness of the Modernist avant-garde.

Elements of Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, graffiti or children’s art are deployed in his compositions to shake up pictorial conventions; space is compressed or expanded, while the sureness and eloquence of his line, sinuous and jagged by turn, conveys with extraordinary intensity the physical bulk and individuality of people – their bristles, wrinkles, creases and broken veins are utterly, insistently real, and also have a moral dimension. They are captured and condemned – by one of the twentieth century’s great draughtsmen.

The two portfolios reproduced here, Ecce Homo and Hintergrund, were first published in 1923 and 1928 respectively, each in an edition of 10,000. Both portfolios were immediately subject to prosecution – the first for obscenity, the second for blasphemy – and the majority of copies were destroyed or lost, either at the time or later during the Nazi era, along with many of the original drawings.

Grosz was not primarily a printmaker; apart from two early portfolios of lithographs, all of his graphic works were in ink, watercolour or pencil.

Ecce Homo consisted of 100 photolithographic prints, 84 of which are of pen-and-ink line drawings, while 16 are colour reproductions of watercolours. Grosz was a superb watercolourist, but these reproductions suffer from the deficiencies of colour printing at the time of their production, and we have therefore omitted them in this book to concentrate on the work for which Grosz has always been best known: his razor-sharp line drawings.

  • George-grosz-11

    George Grosz: The Big NO. Courtesy The Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

  • George-grosz-13

    George Grosz: The Big NO

  • George-grosz-14

    George Grosz: The Big NO

George Grosz: The Big NO will be released by Hayward Publishing on April 30 priced at £9.99.

Portrait9

Posted by Bryony Quinn

Bryony was It’s Nice That’s first ever intern and worked her way up to assistant online editor before moving on to pursue other interests in the summer of 2012.

Most Recent: Illustration View Archive

  1. Lea-itsnicethat-main

    Great work here from German illustrator and comic artist Lea Heinrich who, according to her online bio, “often dreams about being on a subway train traveling underneath the massive steel and concrete construction of New York City. Sometimes she observes the other passengers, sometimes there’s nobody else on the train, and sometimes she doesn’t know where she is going, but either way it’s always exciting.” Cool! Her work is a nice mishmash of urban cuteness à la Andy Rementer and old German folk tales, and her comics have a wit about them not dissimilar to someone like Frau Franz or Matt the Horse. As well as being totally adept at cartoons and comics and illustrations, Brooklyn-based Lea can also design a banging poster, which is always a big plus.

  2. Marcelgeorge-port-itsnicethat-list

    Maybe it’s because I am a notoriously un-stylish man, but the product spreads in magazines usually do absolutely nothing for me. Flicking through multiple pages of artfully arranged man-bags strikes me as purgatorial, but I understand these kinds of features often have a commercial rationale in the complicated financial climate of modern magazine-making. Credit though when a publication strives to do something more interesting with these spreads, like the Russian version of Port magazine (or Port Россия) which commissioned Marcel George to illustrate a recent feature on watches.

  3. Adamnickel-itsnicethat-main

    I came across Adam Nickel’s work on a Mr Porter Journal article entitled How To Speak Professional-ese which outlined how the common man can attempt to understand office and business jargon. Adam Nickel’s perfect for a brand like Mr Porter. His drawings are inspired directly from packaging design and illustration in the 1950s and early 1960s, channeling the kinds of characters you may have seen rushing about in the background of The Pink Panther or chasing a pesky critter through some well-animated opening credits. Adam states on his site that he’s a lover of all things old – I assume he’s referring to design? – and is pushing out so-good-they-could-almost-be-actually-vintage illustrations at a mile a minute. Definitely one to commission if your brand or publication is lacking a spot of style and olde worlde charm.

  4. Sarahmazzetti-mit-itsnicethat-list

    It’s always a joy to hear from Bologna-based illustrator Sarah Mazzettti who has been a firm favourite of ours since we first stumbled across her gig posters back in 2012. The Italian image-maker seems to have settled on a more confident style in recent months and big-name commissions from the likes of Vice, The New York Times and MIT Technology have duly followed. But that unpredictable playful sensibility we so loved has not been entirely banished, as evidenced by her huge yellow giant holding up a room for the TICTIG exhibition at Casa Testori in Milan.

  5. Hattie-stewart-itsnicethat-list-2

    Hattie Stewart is back – not that the self-proclaimed doodle-bomber ever goes away for long – and this time it’s with reams of new work for her very own exhibition at the House of Illustration, entitled Adversary. In the first of what looks to be a whole series of commissions by the London-based gallery, she has created a collection of new (and enormous) pieces in her signature doodle style, decorating images from pop culture with accessories, stripes, googly eyes and emojis and generally elevating them beyond magazine fodder and into something entirely unique and infinitely bolder. 

  6. Jonjones-itsnicethat-list

    You know what we really love apart from great illustration? Seeing how that great illustration was made. Jonathan Jones is a South African illustrator who flits between countries making his beautiful work, but what sets him apart from most of the rest of his freelance counterparts is the way he documents that work online. It’s lovely of course to see the final product of his endeavours, but to see layers of red, yellow and blue build up into a singular image allows a kind of eureka moment where you instantly understand the practitioner’s skill and wish you’d spent more time learning about colour separations at university.

  7. Steven-harrington-itsnicethat-listr

    If pastel colours, psychedelia, totemic piles of strange, Lennon-esque faces and a Salvador Dalì approach to yin-yang symbols are your thing, it’s likely you’ll love the work of illustrator Steven Harrington. The California-based illustrator has spent his career making dreamy, magic, sunshine-infused work; and he’s recently updated his site with a bunch of new work. The piece that really made us grin like a blissed-out, long-haired hippy is the poster for Noise Pop, a refreshingly playful approach to promoting the likes of the equally playful Dan Deacon. Elsewhere, Steven’s been keeping himself busy designing some great patterns and images for New York clothes brand Staple, which are all melting yin-yangs and cactuses bent into Loch Ness Monster-type forms, naturally.

  8. Sacmagique-itsnicethat-main

    Sac Magique’s back with a brand new (magic) bag! The Finnish artist has updated his site – which I check almost as regularly as the news – with a bunch of new drawings in a new, sketchier style. As always his work has gotten funnier and more daring and I daresay he’s cracked up the weird levels a few notches. That’s why I love him, much like fellow Helsinki-based illustrator Rami Niemi, he approaches briefs from big brands with a carefree childish wit, unafraid to use cuss words, toilet humour and sarcasm in ample spoonfuls. He’s been making work for bands such as Fat White Family recently, and has been making personal work that rings of the cynical one-line cartoons found in pages of The New Yorker –the one entitled Drunk Online Shopping, and the London scene in particular. Sac, I love you. Let’s elope.

  9. Bernhardaxilko-itsnicethat-main

    Excuse the pun, but I’m a sucker for penis drawings. Birthday cards, desks, walls, Post-Its, other people’s books, car windscreens: to me the world is but a canvas for penile artwork. Judging by his startlingly extensive back catalogue of sexually charged, penis-infused illustrations, it seems Belgrade-based artist Bernharda Xilko is on the same page. His style is in the same camp as people like Patrick Kyle and Paul Paetzel but comes with a side order of terror, penetration and science fiction. For me, I like the depth of his one-panel cartoons, and how you can stare at it for a while like a saucy magic eye painting, and keep finding things you had missed first time around.

  10. Newyorker_01-wilfrid-wood-itsnicethat_list

    Giving us proof if it were needed that humour and style are in no way mutually exclusive, Wilfrid Wood has created a sweet, strange series of his signature plasticine caricatures for The New Yorker. The illustration spots feature throughout the mag’s style issue, aiming to sum up a variety of different New Yorkers “with hats and scarves and various accessories,” Wilfrid helpfully points out. As is typical of Wilfrid’s work, they’re very odd, sometimes ugly, and very brilliant, and rudimentary as they are we’re sure there’ll be a few folk in the Big Apple who see a little bit of themselves in these lumpy visages.

  11. Alisondubois-after-itsnicethat-list

    Alison Dubois is a San Francisco-based illustrator who channels all of the vitamin D from her native temperate climate into her work. Take After, for example, a collection of re-creations of works by great masters, including Henri Matisse, Peter Doig and a handful of Paul Gauguins. Her drawings are rendered in felt tip and dominated by primary colours, and looking at them for too long feels something like consuming a bottle of Sunny D via an IV drip.

  12. Thomas-slater-mosaic-itsnicethat-list

    It’s a good job “Thomas Slater, Illustrator” has such a nice ring to it, as we seem to be spending a lot of time on his website of late. His newest undertaking is for Mosaic, the science-led strand of the Wellcome Trust which is using commissioned illustration and photography to make even the most opaque of articles on their journal absorbing. For a piece entitled Do You Need to Go to Parent School? Thomas has created a series of drawings depicting kids both being encouraged by, and outsmarting, their ambitious parents – putting them on school buses, playing at being doctors from their buggies, or having their brains measured while diligently sipping on juice cartons. It’s the kind of commission which shows editorial illustration at its most challenging, but somehow Thomas manages to convey broad ideas about parenting and education with a simple and bold colour palette, outsmarting us all in the process.

  13. Sygold-itsnicethat-list-new

    Illustrator S.Y. Gold is one of growing number of young illustrators making a virtue of the limitations of digital software. His imagery makes clear its origins – Illustrator line tools and Photoshop’s airbrush can – in its exuberant final results. What’s the purpose of his unusual images? Hard to say but they display the beginnings of some great character design as well as the potential for interesting editorial applications.