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Friday, May 23, 2014

George Grosz

Hitler in Hell, 1944, George Grosz
My Drawings expressed my despair, hate and disillusionment, I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon. . . I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands. . . I drew lonely little men fleeing madly through empty streets. I drew a cross-section of tenement house: through one window could be seen a man attacking his wife; through another, two people making love; from a third hung a suicide with body covered by swarming flies. I drew soldiers without noses; war cripples with crustacean-like steel arms; two medical soldiers putting a violent infantryman into a strait-jacket made of a horse blanket. . . I drew a skeleton dressed as a recruit being examined for military duty. I also wrote poetry.”    --George Grosz
George Grosz with Hitler in Hell, 1944, Life Magazine..

The God of War, 1940, George Grosz
Wars are no friend of art. They often destroy art. They often destroy artists as well, if not literally then psychologically. World War II was easily the most destructive war in the history of mankind and also the most destructive of art. What it didn't destroy it swallowed up--lost, stolen, or simply misplaced. All of the above directly applies to the German artist, George Grosz. Ironically war also inspires art. I'm not talking here of the patriotic posters I've mentioned in earlier posts, nor the inordinate glorification of war that has so often followed most such social tragedies. In the case of Grosz, war inspired some of the ugliest, most horrifying, horrendously nightmarish art ever produced by man. Grosz's God of War (right) from 1940, and Hitler in Hell (top) from 1944 are but relatively mild examples. His most powerful pieces drew their inspiration from WW I, the "dress rehearsal" a generation before.

The Survivor, 1944, George Grosz
The pub art of George Grosz, 1917
Georg Ehrenfried GroƟ was born in Berlin in 1893. His father owned a pub. His mother managed a German army mess hall. Young George began taking art classes as a teenager. He practiced his art by sketching drunks in his father's bar. Later, he studied at the Dresden Art Academy. With the advent of WW I, the twenty-one-year-old artist enlisted in the German army, hoping to avoid the draft and thus combat on the front lines. He avoided combat, but only because he was discharged with Sinusitis a year later. As the war progressed, the young artist changed his name to Grosz to protest his German nationality and joined several protest movements. Despite the name change, Grosz was, in fact, drafted, though again discharged as being unfit for service. He joined the German version of the Communist party. Despite a trip to Moscow in the early 1920s to hobnob with Lenin and Trotsky, Grosz longed more than anything else to go immigrate to the United States and become an American citizen.

The Explosion, 1940, George Grosz

The caricature of horror, George Grosz
Originally, and through many of his early years, Grosz was a caricaturist. Later, even his most grotesquely violent manifestations of his psychological war wounds (left) still had a cartoonish feel despite their caricatured qualities. He was an anti-war protestor, even after the war. Though he never suffered the type of persecution that was to later befall some of his younger colleagues, Grosz was hounded and even fined by the government he hated and ridiculed for his "God With Us" series of drawings. His art from the 1920s did much to create the lasting image of decadence and debauchery we still have of the Weimar Republic. Intensely anti-Nazi, Grosz chance of a lifetime came in 1932 with an invitation to teach summer classes at New York's Art Students League. The following year, Grosz returned briefly to Germany, picked up his family, and took up residence in Bayside, New Jersey. He finally fulfilled his dream and became a naturalized American in 1938.  He continued to teach at the Art Students League until 1947 when he moved to Huntington, New York, where he eked out a meager living teaching at the Huntington Township Art League until his death in 1959.

Max Herman Neisse, by George Grosz. It's hard to believe that this came
from the same mind, the same hand as the painting Explosion (above).
Grosz could also be something of a
clown in real LIFE.
In moving to the United States, Grosz tried to make a complete break with his turbulent past in Germany. He began painting landscapes, nudes, and the occasional portrait. Though time and space may serve to heal the psychological wounds of war, his new country and new art came to have a negative effect on his career. His art lost its edge. Only the powerful Expressionism of his desperate war years set him apart from the highly competitive art world he found in New York. He was reduced to trading some of his best works such as Eclipse of the Sun (bottom), to pay for car repairs. The painting is now appraised for $19-million. As so often happens, it was only after his death, not until the Vietnam anti-War days of the 1970s, that Grosz's work once more gained notice and respect. In 1960, he was the subject of the Oscar-nominated short film George Grosz' Interregnum, while in later years, as his works rose in value, there have been lawsuits brought by the Grosz estate in its struggle to regain control of some of his works confiscated during both World Wars then subsequently resold to museums.

The Eclipse of the Sun, 1926, George Grosz
--used to pay for car repairs.


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