George Grosz

George Grosz

George Grosz

Född 1893
Död 1959

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George Grosz 1893 – 1959

Best known for his Dada art and caustically satirical caricature works, Georg Ehrenfried Gross was born in Berlin in 1893, later changing his name to George Grosz.  Some consider him to be perhaps the most outstanding caricaturist and political satirist of the period following World War I.

His father was Karl Ehrenfried Gross, an innkeeper, and his mother’s name was Marie Wilhelmine Luise.  When George was only seven his father died.  He and his mother then lived alternately in Berlin and Stolp, Pomerania (now Poland), where Georg started secondary school in 1902.  In 1908 he was expelled from school for disobedience (allegedly for returning a blow he had received from a trainee teacher).

He passed the entrance exam to study at the Royal Academy of Art in Dresden where he specialized in graphic art, and as early as 1910 became involved with satirical magazines.

In 1912, Grosz (then Gross) joined the graphic art course at the College of Arts and Crafts in Berlin.  In 1913 he spent several months in Paris at Colarossi’s studio.  The main subjects of his drawings of that period were crimes, orgies, and erotic subjects. Some of his cartoons were published in periodicals.  He also did his first book illustrations and began painting in oils.

With the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered, and served briefly as an infantryman, but was discharged from the army several months later following a surgical operation.  About 1916, he began to portray with biting satire the militarism and ruthlessness of the ruling classes.

In Berlin in 1917, he joined the Dada movement, which was essentially a protest against war and exploitation, and a call for a new humanism.  By 1918 he was considered by many to be Germany’s leading social critic in the field of the visual arts.  His works demonstrating pity for the underdog and hatred of capitalism penetrated deep into the consciousness of the postwar mentality of a Germany suffering with inflation and political failure.

In 1916, in protest against nationalism and patriotism, he altered his name to George Grosz. During this period in Berlin, Grosz met various authors, artists, and intellectuals, among them those with whom he would found the Berlin Dada in 1917.

Following the revolution in Russia, an artists’ association, the ’November Group’, was established in Berlin in 1918.  Grosz joined it, soon after becoming a member of the Communist Party. In 1919 he started a magazine called ”Die Pleite’.  His drawings, which were critical of bourgeois society, appeared in various publications, and his work often aroused scandals.

In 1920, Grosz visited Italy, and in 1922 he spent six months in Russia.  The trip disillusioned him, and, feeling out of step with Russia’s politics, Grosz resigned from the Communist party in 1923.  The next year, however, he became a leader of Berlin’s Rote Gruppe (Red group), an organization of revolutionary Communist artists.

About 1925, he approached in his paintings a style that was fully realistic and was called the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a reaction to the expressionist trends of the era.

In his drawings, usually in pen and ink, which he sometimes developed further with watercolor, Grosz contributed to a perception much of the world had of Berlin in the 1920s, including corpulent businessmen, wounded soldiers, prostitutes, and orgies. His draftsmanship was excellent although the works he is best known for adopt a deliberately crude form of caricature.  In 1921 his album Gott mit uns (God with us) brought Grosz charges of defaming the Reichswehr (army).

In 1924, he was prosecuted for offences against public morality for his work titled Ecce Homo, which was confiscated as being pornographic.  He was accused of blasphemy in 1928 for a drawing titled Shut Up and Keep Serving the Cause.  All these scandals only helped increase his fame.

In 1931, a writer for the periodical Eulenspiegel wrote: ”No other German artist so consciously used art as a weapon in the fight of the German workers during 1919 to 1923 as did George Grosz.  He is one of the first artists in Germany who consciously placed art in the service of society.”

He was bitterly anti-Nazi, and Grosz’s reputation as a political activist and deflator of German greatness was no secret.  Premonitions of disaster began to haunt him.  In his autobiography he recalled: ”a studio assistant appeared in a brown shirt one day and warned him to be careful; another time he found a threatening note next to his easel, calling him a Jew.”  When in the spring of 1932 a cable arrived from the Art Students League in New York inviting him to teach there during the summer, he accepted immediately.  After a short return to Germany, he learned his apartment and studio had been searched by the Gestapo, who were looking for him.  He emigrated in January 1933, together with his wife and two sons.

In the United States, both his works and behavior changed radically—no more attacks on society, or focus on class struggle.  This resignation was not entirely sincere, however, as he later wrote in his autobiography: ”My motto was now to give offence to none and be pleasing to all… Anyone who plans to get ahead and make money would do well to have no character at all.  The second rule for fitting in is to think everything beautiful!  Everything,  that is to say, including things that are not beautiful in reality.”

Grosz taught at the Art Students League into the 1950s.  He also had a private art school, where his students were mainly society ladies.  From 1937 to 1939, he was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, which enabled him to devote time to his own work.  He was not rich, but was comfortable.  In 1937, he was included in the noted German exhibition of ’degenerate’ art, and in 1938 was stripped of his German citizenship.  He became an American citizen, and the Nazis burned numerous works by him.

In 1944, he painted Cain, or Hitler in Hell, showing the dead attacking Hitler in hell. During this period he also worked as Artist in Residence at the Des Moines Art Center.

Grosz’s artistic works during his American period are considered by some to be less important than his teaching activities and his autobiography, A Little Yes and Big No, published in 1946.  Grosz taught at the School of Fine Arts, Columbia University (1941-1942).  For a short time he painted landscapes and figural compositions with nudes, but he soon returned to works in a social realist mode.

In 1954, Grosz was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1958 to the Academy of Fine Arts of Germany.  His last works in America were collages, which partly recall his Dada period and partly were influenced by Pop Art.

Grosz returned to Germany permanently in 1958, somewhat disillusioned with his American interlude, having been appreciated in America primarily as a satirist.  He returned to his homeland in an attempt to regain the momentum he had lost, but died in Berlin in a drinking-related accident six weeks after his return.

In 1960, Grosz was the subject of an Oscar-nominated short film titled George Grosz’s Interregnum.