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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!!!!!!”1

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!…”2

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)3

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 drawings of Weimar Berlin were pure reportage.) In New York, his eye was caught by the youthful energy of American crowds. He particularly loved the grace and flashy elegance of rich Negroes in Harlem. The Americans in his drawings of the early 1930s don’t slouch, or march, or leer, as his Berliners do; there is a youthful spring in their step.

This was the way he saw New York, but it was also the way he wished to see New York. He wanted to be an American illustrator, not a caricaturist. He was famous for his “hate-filled caricatures” and knew that most people “considered the period in which they were drawn my best.” But he did not want to be “a kind of legend, a relic from the Roaring Twenties.” He wanted to please the editors of glossy magazines, the kind of people who said to him: “Not too German, Mr. Grosz! Not too bitter—you know what we mean, don’t you?”4

He knew, and he found it liberating. He was glad to be in a country where he did not feel any hate. He had grown tired of hating, of politics, of satire. The German poet and translator Hans Sahl, who became friends with Grosz in the US, wrote that Grosz always had been pulled in opposite directions as an artist. There was the political Grosz, the Hogarth of his time, the satirist who wanted to shock people out of their complacency by holding up a ghastly mirror. His other desire was to “paint as beautifully as Rubens or Renoir, sensually, concretely, while exploring forms with an almost academic precision.”5 The US freed Grosz from his Hogarthian demons and allowed him to be the “pure” artist. As Grosz put it in his autobiography:

How it happened I find hard to explain; let me just say that, as far as I could tell, the natural artist in me came to the surface. In any case I was suddenly sick and tired of satirical cartoons and of pulling faces, and felt that I had done enough clowning to last me a lifetime.6

The difference in style is indeed visible, even in genres which Grosz had practiced all his life: his erotic pictures, for example. Unfortunately none of Grosz’s German erotic watercolors were on show in Berlin. Some are in the US, in the Kronhausen collection in San Francisco. They show hefty women dressed in Scottish kilts or maid’s uniforms being taken from behind by gloating men with large, beetred penises. These drawings have an obscene beauty: a combination of lust and disgust—the key, in my view, to much of Grosz’s best work. The American erotica are no less graphic: the same outsize genitals, like those in Japanese prints, the same fleshy women on their hands and knees, offering up their large, pink bottoms. But here the women are more Rubensesque, the obscenity is tempered by a more academic concern for fine painting. The subject is still lust, but the effect is somehow less lusty.

This may simply be a sign of age. It is also true that the relative failure of Grosz’s more academic work—his landscape paintings, say—had little to do with his move to the US. His attempts to express beauty instead of grossness were often boringly conventional during his years in Europe, too. The landscape of Pointe Rouge, Marseille (1927), could have been done by a talented Sunday painter. Grosz had told his dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, that he wanted to paint something that was not “revolting.” He thought this would make his art more commercial (“verkäuflicher“). He wrote to his friend Marcel Ray that he wanted to be free of “this exaggerated cult of détails.” But it was precisely the revolting détails that made Grosz’s drawings of the 1910s and 1920s powerful.

It is interesting to compare Grosz’s attempts to be conventional with the work of his contemporary Otto Dix. Dix, too, was at his best when he was most disgusting: the carnage in World War I, the filthy old whores in cheap Berlin brothels. When Dix painted “beautifully”—portraits of his wife and children, for example—he became cloying, kitschy, a Christmascard artist. Both Dix and Grosz needed the stimulation of their loathing to produce their best work. Loathing was the one thing Grosz did not feel in America; he didn’t want to feel it; he couldn’t afford to feel it. Loathing is what he had wished to leave behind.

But it didn’t quite work out that way. Despite his eagerness to please the American glossies, Grosz was still Grosz, haunted by dark visions and suffering severe depressions. A drink was never far from his side. Some of his letters read like the ravings of a brilliant drunk. And some of the American paintings are among the darkest, most horrific things he ever made. They are depresing, in a way that even his most grotesque Berlin drawings never were. In a painting entitled The Moon has set, and the Pleiads (1944), a tired figure (the artist himself) trudges through the mud during a nocturnal rainstorm. He looks battered, bloody, without hope. A drawing called Shattered Dream (1935) shows a man slumped over a rock, a broken glass in one hand, a bottle, leaking booze, in the other. He looks as if he has just been sick. Immediately behind him is the wreckage of a boat, with the shattered remains of a cross, a paintbrush and a book. Farther behind him is a city in ruins, and farther still the mirage of Manhattan skyscrapers.

The feeling of personal despair that went into these paintings was shared by many, perhaps most, émigrés and refugees, cast adrift in a strange and indifferent new world. Grosz was onto something real and interesting. And yet the paintings lack the power of his earlier work. They seem rhetorical, unconvincing, without life. The same is true, in my view, of his allegorical paintings of the European catastrophe. Here Grosz modeled himself not on Rubens or Breughel but on Goya and Bosch. In God of War (1940), Mars is represented as a demonic Nazi, surrounded by the symbolic paraphernalia of contemporary horror: a swastika, the head of a tortured man, a child playing with a machine gun. In The Mighty One on a Little Outing Surprised by Two Poets (1942), we see Hitler standing in an icy landscape, holding a bloody whip behind his back, like the tail of Beelzebub. The two poets, one playing on a broken lyre, the other scribbling on bits of torn paper adorned with swastikas, are monstrous, old graybeards worshiping at the knees of the Führer. Then there is his most famous painting, entitled Cain, or Hitler in Hell (1944), which—like many of his paintings—is composed from elements of older drawings. Hitler is depicted as a haunted figure, mopping the sweat off his brow, sitting on a heap of corpses, as the world is bubbling and burning in the background like a hellish cauldron.

The subjects of these paintings were no doubt deeply felt, and the imagery is horrific enough. But they refuse to come to life. What is depicted not only lacks realism (as is only natural in allegories) but reality. Grosz wrote in 1946 (to Elisabeth Lindner) that he was not especially interested in representing “reality.” There was no reason for his “nightmares to compete with photography. They are witnesses of my ‘inner’ world—ruins in me, populated by my own lunatics, dwarfs and wizards.”7 Other denizens of Grosz’s inner world are the “stick people,” figures made up of nerves and intestines, who are, in the artist’s words, “without any hope or purpose,” moving about grotesquely in a kind of danse macabre.

The problem with these allegories is the problem of his “commercial” landscapes: the détails are missing, the small things of daily life, re-created by the artist, that make the work more than just painted rhetoric. The nightmares lack immediacy because they are not observed, and Grosz, I think, needed to observe closely what he painted. He was not comparable to Goya, or even to Max Beckmann, who painted marvelously wherever he was, in Berlin, Amsterdam, or St. Louis. Grosz’s inner life was not enough to feed his art. He needed the buzz and the smell of the streets. And not just any streets, but the streets he knew best, of late Wilhelminian, early Republican Berlin, where he could play the dandy, the agent provocateur, the Dadaist clown. It was hard for him to play these roles in New York. As he said in an interview quoted by Christine Fischer-Defoy in the exhibition catalog: “I became kind of conformist in America. I didn’t want to stand out.”

  1. 1

    George Grosz, Briefe: 1913-1959 (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1979), p. 148.

  2. 2

    Grosz, Briefe, p. 163.

  3. 3

    Grosz, Briefe, p. 174.

  4. 4

    All the above quotes are from Grosz’s autobiography, A Small Yes and a Big No, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans (Allison and Busby, 1982), p. 184.

  5. 5

    Hans Sahl, So Long mit Händedruck (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1993), p. 15.

  6. 6

    Grosz, A Small Yes and a Big No, p. 184.

  7. 7

    Briefe, p. 375.

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