George Grosz’s Amerika

George Grosz: Berlin-New York Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, May 6-July 30, 1995.

an exhibition Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, until April 16, 1995;

George Grosz: Berlin-New York

catalog of the exhibition edited by Peter-Klaus Schuster
Nationalgalerie Berlin, 579 pp., DM 49 (paper)

On May 26, 1932, George Grosz boarded the New York at Cuxhaven, bound for the United States. He arrived on June 3. From his hotel (the Great Northern on Fifty-seventh Street), he wrote letter after letter to his wife, Eva, in Berlin: “A new, unbelievable world… for me it is and remains…the finest city in the world—Paris: I shit on it. Berlin, well all right (home, language, unlike anywhere else, it can pass). Rome: pigsty. Petersburg: revolting! Moscow: a plebeian village! London: Hats off! Cool respect. New York: the city!!!!!!”

Four months later he was still ecstatic. A letter to his old friend Otto Schmalhausen: “It is wonderful now in New York. The air is Indian summer-fresh—you feel the presence of the harbor—it is the season for seafood—I eat big deep sea oysters every evening at the Lexington restaurant—Boy what a world!!!…Fresh huge healthy America!…”

Grosz returned to Germany in October, but came back to New York the following year, this time with his wife and two sons. He stayed until 1959, painting, drawing, and teaching rich women at the Art Students League on Fifth-seventh Street. “The boys,” Peter and Martin, grew up as Americans. Grosz became a US citizen in 1938. Twenty-seven years: this means that Grosz spent more time in the US as an artist than in his native Berlin. Yet he is famous for his Berlin pictures. His American period is commonly regarded as a failure. One of the many merits of the superb Grosz retrospective in Germany is that it offers a chance to assess the American work. Grosz himself didn’t consider it a failure at all. Or at least that is what he said. He began full of optimism:

Everything here, so it seems to me, is—compared to Germany—fresher…I really feel like working. Have painted lots of good stuff. Just as “critical” as I was in Germany—but I think it is (in the best sense) more human, livelier. I often look at Breughel, whose beautiful work you gave me. (Letter to Wieland Herzfelde, June 1933)

There might already be a hint of defensiveness here, as though he were afraid of criticism that his Americophilia had taken the sting out of his art. It is still thought that America made Grosz go mushy. Grosz’s rather charming drawings and watercolors of New York street scenes indeed lack the harshness of his Berlin work. The faces are softer, more sympathetic. In his early German drawings, he deliberately exaggerated the ugliness of German types: the fat necks, the broken veins, the big rumps, the piggy eyes, the thick, pouting lips wrapped around stumpy cigars. He said his vision of Germany had been inspired by graffiti on the walls of public toilets. One of his favorite words (and subjects) was kotzen, to vomit. His art was, as it were, vomited onto the page. (Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, once remarked that Grosz’s …

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