George Grosz: An Autobiography
translated by Nora Hodges
Imago/Macmillan, 312 pp., $19.95
George Grosz’s autobiography is now appearing in English for the third time—a sign of the continuing interest in his life and work. When the book was first published in 1946, the German text was edited down somewhat and translated by Nola Sachs Dorin. It was decked out with a somewhat random selection of his drawings and paintings (including some in deplorable color), and put out under the title A Little Yes and a Big No. In 1955 Rowohlt of Hamburg published the original German, translating the title and restoring cuts (notably the very funny and none too flattering account of Grosz’s trip to Russia in 1922), reshuffling the drawings and doing without the color. This caused little stir at the time, apart from a long and enthusiastic article in the Times Literary Supplement. The wide recognition of Grosz’s genius as an artist came only in the mid-Sixties (with major exhibitions and the republication of Ecce Homo) and the Seventies (with books on his work by Hans Hess and Beth Irwin Lewis). Last year, however, Allison and Busby, subsidized by the Arts Council of Great Britain, published a fresh translation of the autobiography made by Arnold J. Pomerans from the German edition of 1955, shuffling the pictures yet again to make a cramped and meanly laid-out book. And now we have yet another translation, with another title, and another mix of the pictures, with some fresh ones added and slightly more space.
These pictures are something of a distraction, which may be all right if you want to be distracted; and for anyone entirely unfamiliar with Grosz they may well be a revelation. But in none of the book’s four versions are they either aptly chosen or well reproduced. Grosz himself quite early on got into a sloppy habit of using old drawings in contexts they were never meant for, so the chronology and relevance to the text are often confusing; one marvelous drawing of a Nordic sub-Wotan figure smoking a cigar (with the band on) is brutally chopped off at navel-height so that you cannot see the hairy balls which are half its point; moreover, the relations of scale are crazy. In addition, the pictures conflict rather puzzlingly with the author’s frequent protestations that he hates and renounces the work he did before he came to America. It is much better, then, to concentrate on Grosz the witness of his time and treat his memoirs primarily as one of several such accounts by German anti-Nazis of his generation, starting with Ernst Toller’s I Was a German. For these tell us not of the Golden Twenties but of the terrible anxieties, uncertainties, and disappointments that really helped to produce the art of that period; their vivid if still partly unconscious awareness of the cruel and stupid things to come.
It was above all because of this sense of the precariousness of a seemingly advanced civilization that the book made so strong an impression …