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Last updated: 1/25/2017
Home / Gallery Tour 1 / German Expressionism / Gallery Tour 2 / Artists
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George Grosz (German, 1893-1958): Dunes and Grass and Ecce Homo

Grosz: Ecce Homo color I / Grosz: Ecce Homo color II
Grosz: Ecce Homo / Grosz: Ecce Homo 2 / Grosz: Ecce Homo 3 / Grosz: Ecce Homo 4 / Grosz: Ecce Homo 5
Grosz: Ecce Homo 6 / Grosz: Ecce Homo 7 / Grosz: Ecce Homo 8 / Grosz: Ecce Homo 9 / Grosz: Ecce Homo 10 / Grosz : Tartarin

German Expressionism: Portraits / Lovers / Society

"Käthe Kollwitz and German Expressionism" featured over fifty works by Käthe Kollwitz plus additional works by Josef Albers,
Ernst Barlach, Rudolf Bauer, Max Beckmann, Peter Behrens, Heinrich Campendonck, Marc Chagall, Lovis Corinth,
Otto Dix, Lyonel Feininger, Conrad Felixmuller, Hans Fronius, Alfons Graber, Otto Greiner, Georg Grosz, Erich Heckel,
Hannah Hoch, Karl Hofer,Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Ludwig Meidner,
Edvard Munch, Gabrielle Munter, Heinrich Nauen, Emile Nolde, Max Pechstein, Hilla von Rebay, Georges Rouault,
Rudolf Schlichter, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Siegfried Schott, Georg Tappert, Wilhelm Wagner, and others.

German Expressionist Drawings

The Russians: Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, Goncharova, Larionov, and Malevich
George Grosz was born in 1893 in Berlin where his father, a Prussian Lutheran, ran a pub. Five years later, the family moved to Stolp where he was the caretaker of the local Freemansons' lodge and was barkeep at the lodge as well. He spent his free time "reading illustrated magazines and drinking Schnaps, possibly too much for his own good" (Hess. p. 9). In 1912 Grosz settled in Berlin and lived in the suburb of Charlottenburg. Grosz was fascinated by amusement parks and the circus, and he particularly loved clowns. Like Rouault and Chagall, he saw them as playing the same tragicomic role that the artist was forced to act in a bourgeois society. Grosz used his art of the early Berlin years to attack the self-contentedness of the bourgeois, primarily its plutocrats and its military, during the German Empire. He anticipated far in advance the disillusionment and shock of World War I as well as the change in art and society brought by the chaos of 1918. Grosz’s paintings depicted modern city life with its desire, passions, and crimes. For Grosz, the chaos of the big city reflected the amorality of man. By disregarding the laws of perspective, Grosz’s paintings could present a world falling into pieces. The sexual explicitness in his drawings matched the perverted knowledge of a precocious youth. Despite his distaste for anything romantic, one cannot fail to notice rather poetic moons and stars shining above city streets. The next year he made his first trip to Paris and lived there for nine months. During that time he studied at the Atelier of Colarossi and met Jules Pascin, whose works greatly impressed him. The outbreak of World War I, however, interrupted their friendship.  In 1914 Grosz entered military service as a volunteer. After six months he was dismissed due to a severe sinus infection. Shortly after that he published his first portfolio. In 1918 Grosz returned to Berlin even more convinced of society's insanity. At that time he made violently anti-war drawings, and drawings and paintings attacking the social corruption of Germany, and depicting capitalists, prostitutes, the Prussian military caste, and the middle class. Together with John Heartfield, the master of the political photomontage, and his brother Wieland, Grosz produced a cartoon film, which unfortunately is lost today (they had been commissioned to make a war propaganda film for Germany; instead they turned into its opposite). Grosz considered himself a propagandist of the social revolution. He not only depicted victims of the catastrophe of the the Great War—the disabled, crippled, and mutilated—he also portrayed the collapse of the capitalist society and its values. His wartime line drawings show him to be a master of caricature.

In 1918 Grosz joined the German Communist Party; in 1919 he became a leading member of the Berlin DADA movement. At that time  he made DADA collages,  partly in collaboration with John Heartfield. But as Peter Selz observed in German Expressionist Painting (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957; 1974), DADA was not a stopping point for Grosz: "Grosz soon turned toward more definitive expression in pungent drawing and lithographs that were bitter social commentaries and powerful accusations of the ruling classes. His superrealism in confronting the observer with the most ghastly aspects of reality and his utmost precision of line were soon found also in the works of Otto Dix and, temporarily, Max Beckmann" (p. 315). In German Expressionist Prints and Drawings Vol. I: Essays (Los Angeles: LA County Museum, 1989), Alexander Dückers observes that "Once Grosz came to see the appearance of things as a masquerade, he dissolved the static unity of place and time and came close to the pictorial formula developed by the Futurists, who had exhibited in Berlin as early as April 1912: reality is captured not by a static, framed section of the visual field, but by the representation of moving objects occurring simultaneously in different places" (87-88). Like medieval narrative paintings or the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, Grosz's 1921 offset lithographs for Die Abenteuer Des Herren Tartarin Aus Tarascon present a crowded field on which characters move or dream surrounded by other people or their thoughts but without any overt interaction. The consequences of his attempts to show the truth behind the masquerade of bourgeois life in postwar Germany were serious: Grosz was prosecuted and persecuted for slander and blasphemy. 1923 saw both the publication of his portfolio Ecco Homo and its confiscation for offending public morals. Ecce Homo (1923) was found to be a slanderous attack upon the army, which won damages and twenty of the plates for the portfolio in a law suit. Grosz's personal attack upon Hitler in 1925 made his decision to leave Germany inevitable.

In 1919, Count Harry Kessler wrote in his diary of a visit to Grosz's studio: "He said that he would like to be like the German Hogarth, deliberately concrete and moral; to preach, ameliorate, reform. . . . Then Grosz said that art as a whole was unnatural anyway, an illness; the artist was obsessed, a man possessed of a mania" (Kranzfelder, 34). About a decade later, Grosz's notes before his 1930 trial for blasphemy offer another statement of his artistic practise: "In 1917 . . . I began to draw what moved me in little satirical drawings. Art for art's sake always seemed nonsense to me . . . I wanted to protest against this world of mutual destruction . . . everything in me was darkly protesting. I had seen heroism . . . but it appeared to me as blind. I saw misery, want, stupor, hunger, cowardice, ghastliness. Then I painted a big picture: in a sinister street at night a hellish procession of dehumanized figures rolls on, faces, representing Alcohol, Syphilis, Pestilence. One figure blows the trumpet, and one shouts 'hurrah!', parrot fashion. Over this crowd rides Death on a black coffin—direct as a symbol, the boneman. The picture was related to my ancestors, the medieval masters, Bosch and Brueghel. They, too, lived in the twilight of a new epoch and formed its expression. . . Against Mankind gone mad, I painted this protest" (Hess, p. 80). The artist may not be the spokesperson for sanity, but he or she must be willing to portray insanity for what it is. For Grosz, that meant, more often than not through his drawings and watercolors recreated in editions via offset lithography, and offered in multiples in both limited edition portfolios and larger edition books.

Perhaps the most famous of Grosz's collections is Ecce Homo (Berlin: Malik Verlag, 1923). The title echoes Pilate's presentation of Jesus as King of the Jews, beaten, with a crown of thorns, bloody and ready for crucifixion, and clearly not the Messiah he had been proclaimed to be six days earlier when he was greeted by rapturous crowds. Just so, the image of the heroic German, brave in war and moral in peacetime, took such a beating in Grosz's drawings, watercolors, and paintings, that he was prosecuted for "offences against public morality and for besmirching the values of the German people" (Kranzfelder, 59). Ecce Homo was found to be a slanderous attack upon the army, which won damages and the removal of 5 color plates and 17 black and white plates from the portfolio in a law suit. Grosz was also fined 6000 marks. Since Grosz had been attacking the Nazis since the early 1920s and since he had singled out Hitler in particular, it is not surprising that after the Nazi's took power in Germany, his works were singled out for ridicule and destruction. 285 of his works were removed from German collections and destroyed and the 1937 Munich Exhibition of Nazi-labelled "Degenerate Art" included five of his paintings, two watercolors, and thirteen drawings (Kranzfelder, p. 86).

Grosz taught in the summer of 1932 at the Art Students' League in New York City; on January 12, 1933, shortly before Hitler officially became Chancellor of Germany, Grosz and his family left Germany and Grosz became a full-time member of the faculty of the Art Students League, thereby escaping the fate of much of the art he left behind in Germany. In 1936 and 1937, Grosz had a Guggenheim Fellowship to paint. In 1938, the Nazis stripped Grosz of his German citizenship and he became an American citizen. In 1954, Grosz had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1958, Grosz was elected to the West Berlin Academy of Fine Arts and in 1959 he returned to Germany where he died five weeks later. In a sense, Grosz needed Germany and the abuses of the powerful to bring out his strongest work: without a constant sense of outrage to stoke his creative juices, his work became less distinctly his own. Although there are undoubtedly a number of fine works that he did in the US, "Grosz" immediately summons about his attacks upon the abuses of the rich and powerful and the desperate plight of the poor, and though America suffered through the Depression, it didn't suffer nearly so much as Germany did, especially after the New Deal put people back to work and stabilized the banking system. Though Grosz, was forced to flee his homeland and take refuge in a country in which he never felt entirely comfortable, history has vindicated Grosz. Condemned by the Nazis as a "Degenerate" artist, his works are now in the collections of most major museums in the US and Europe. Grosz himself anticipated his place in the history of art. After relocating to the U.S., Grosz wrote to J. B. Neuman concerning his work: "My drawings will naturally stay true–they are fireproof. They will later be seen as Goya's work [is]. They are not documents of the class struggle, but eternally living documents of human stupidity and brutality" (Hess, p. 240).

Selected Bibliography: Alexander Dückers, George Grosz: Das druckgraphische Werk (Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1979); there is also an edition with an English translation published by Alan Wofsy Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1966, from which we will cite: George Grosz: Das druckgraphische Werk / The Graphic Work; Bruce Davis, German Expressionist Prints and Drawings: The Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies. Volume 2: Catalogue of the Collection (Prestel: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989); M. Kay Flavell, George Grosz: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Frank Gettings, George Grosz - The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection ( Washington DC: Smithsonian, 1978); George Grosz, A Small Yes and a Big No: The Autobiography of George Grosz (London: Allison & Busby, 1982); Hans Hess, George Grosz (New York: Macmillan, 1972); Ivo Kranzfelder, George Grosz: 1893-1959 (Köln: Benedikt Taschen, 1994); Hedy B. Landman, Theatrical Drawings and Watercolors by George Grosz (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1973); Beth Irwin Lewis, George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971); Barbara McCloskey, George Grosz and the Communist Party (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Serge Sabarsky, George Grosz: The Berlin Years (NY: Rizzoli, 1985); Uwe M. Schneede, George Grosz: His life and work (London: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979); Peter Selz, German Expressionist Painting (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957; 1974).
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Dunes and Grass (Duckers E 109 II). 200 impressions on rag paper signed lower right and published by the Art Students League of NY, where Grosz taught after coming to the US. Grosz left Germany immediately after the Nazis took power, leaving several days before the Gestapo raided his apartment and studio, seizing and destroying all the works he had left behind. Besides showing widely, Grosz took a job teaching at the Art Students League on 57th St. in New York City. Summers, his wife, and their two sons summered on Cape Cod from 1949 on. An intense work that conveys a rather sexualized landscape in the tradition of German Expressionism. Image size: 252x325mm. Price: $3750.

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