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