• 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. Main9

    Edward Cushenberry actually wrote to me to show me a really interesting photography project he’s working on at the moment. Unfortunately that was about the millionth interesting photography project we had seen this week, but one thing we were a bit short on was brilliant, entertaining, lo-fi illustration we could relate to. Let’s give a warm welcome then to Edward’s comics in which he deals with traumatic or memorable experiences from his own memory, or borrowed from this friends. His drawings cover such life topics as How to Properly Bury A Turtle and that awkward moment when the girl you kissed says that making out with you was “like drinking a glass of water.” Classic. Edward’s got his fingers in a lot of creative pies, but I’d say these comics were our personal favourites.

  2. Sdlist

    Girls just wanna… doodle! Celebrities including Yoko Ono, Sarah Silverman, Pussy Riot and Courtney Love are backing a Kickstarter project to inspire girls to get drawing. Confidence, curiosity, courage and creativity are terms being bandied around by the School of Doodle, which will be “a free online high school for the imagination” where teen girls can take part in lessons taught by artists or peers. It might sound a little cheesy, but with brilliant creatives like artist John Baldessari, Kim Hasreiter, founder of Paper magazine, and Salman Rushdie signed up as teachers, it promises great things.

  3. List_2

    It’s not especially often that creatives flock to Cornwall en masse, but the little nook of England has been awash with activity this weekend due to Port Eliot festival, featuring musicians, artists, fashion designers and journalists. It also saw the launch of The Girl Who Fell to Earth, a story written by Luella Bartley and illustrated by Zoë Taylor, a graphic artist we make no secret of our love for.

  4. Main

    It’s not only the level of detail in Laurie Lipton’s drawings which is crazy; the illustrations are too. With charcoal and pencil she creates bonkers worlds in black and white which look like pictures for a short story written by the love child of Charles Dickens and George Orwell. The blacking factory meets Big Brother.

  5. List

    Ping Zhu is a force to be reckoned with in the world of illustration. Not only is she talented, mastering an inimitable style in every way imaginable, and then using it as very efficient bait to reel in the big clients, The Sunday Times, Pentagram and Nobrow included, but she’s also future proof – developing her style with every project she undertakes to make her as exciting as she is reliable, and delivering consistently good work to a broad spectrum of briefs.

  6. Mt101top

    There’s some schadenfreude at play in Masami Tsukishima’s illustrations. His series Life Of A Salesman follows lonely suited blokes trudging to and from work, talking on their phones and lugging their suitcases. I like how he plays with the angles of his illustrations; life is literally an uphill struggle for some of these poor office drones, as they plod along lanes slanting up and away from them. There’s also some sort of alternate universe in the series, where trains go up in flames and spread-eagled salesmen fall through the sky and run away from looming giant iPhones. One second the salesmen are sedately reading their emails, the next everything has spiralled out of control. The sentiment is a tongue-in-cheek 21st century Japanese rendering of “Slough”. I’m guessing Masami Tsukishima doesn’t wear a suit to work.

  7. Glaserlist

    We adore this article from NYT’s T Magazine today, in which a heap of creatives sing hallelujah for old school artistic tools, with brilliant illustrations to boot.

  8. List

    There are several reasons why we love Kyle Pellet and everything that comes out of his Pellet Factory, but first and foremost on the list is that his work is good, plain, unadulterated fun. There’s no need to muse on his choice of medium, or the narratives which seem to run from one image to the next, or the squishy-faced characters who pop up again and again, because why would you when you can look at them, laugh and imagine you’re running through a gallery with a pack of assorted animals? Turns out he’s been incredibly busy churning out work at an impressive rate, so here’s an update on what he’s been up to! If you’re curious, you can also check out five of his favourite books over here on his bookshelf.

  9. Gflist

    Doodling isn’t just for school kids. It’s about discovery. “It’s a healthy way to let it all out, with no restrictions or external rules,” says Guy, a designer and illustrator. “You just go for it.” Every single page of his sketchbooks is packed with faces, animals, monsters, questions and squiggles. “Sometimes you’ll draw a face or a hand or a dog in a way you’ve never seen or done before and that’s always a good feeling. And sometimes you just make yourself laugh!”

  10. Main9

    Scrolling through Marcel George’s hand-painted watercolour illustrations is like going on safari. Lipsticks hiding behind palm fronds, flamingos stalking around sunglasses, the Lacoste crocodile roaring at trainers.

  11. Dadulist

    There’s something otherworldly about Dadu Shin’s illustrations. Miniature people wander about an overgrown fairy-tale forest, an avatar-like hand reaches out into a tie-dye galaxy, a man walks a lonely path over rocks which form the silhouette of a woman’s face.

  12. List

    As far as I can tell, there will always be a place for clean, stylish, witty illustration in the pages of today’s most esteemed media outlets, and for as long as that is the case illustrator Ben Wiseman isn’t going to have any trouble finding work. He’s nailed his aesthetic, communicating funny, satirical observations in neat, stripped back images and vibrant colours, and sure enough, clients have cottoned on. His portfolio includes a TIME magazine cover alongside work the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and This American Life, a corker of a list which just about makes him Brooklyn’s poster boy for editorial illustration. And thank god, because the black and white pages of the aforementioned publications sure would be dull without him.

  13. Main

    It’s very exhilarating to see people taking something destructive and turning it into something creative; with that in mind please welcome the Computer Virus Catalog.