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.”

Here, too, Grosz was probably exaggerating. For he never stopped playacting—his autobiography, written in 1946, is a hilarious but very unreliable document. His roles were getting increasingly stale, however. They belonged to a vanished world. He had frequented the Dada group in Berlin during World War I, and his wonderfully zany Dadaist sense of humor still permeates his letters to fellow exiles, who shared the same memories and understood his jokes. In these letters, written in an inimitable and untranslatable mixture of American English and Berlin slang, one can still sense the afterglow of the Weimar Republic. But reading them, I could not help thinking of the shattered dandyism of Beau Brummell and his friends, who tried to keep up appearances in shabby French seaports after being thrown out of the salons of Regency London. The demented Brummell would hold imaginary soirées in empty hotel rooms.

Grosz knew very well that he would never be an American artist. But he also knew there was no way back to the Berlin he had left behind. Like so many other émigré artists, he was caught between worlds. “Life here,” he wrote in 1936, “is so different, and sometimes one feels so depressed and uncomfortable—but then a cool ocean breeze comes blowing round the corner—and one is an American once again: how are’ye—how are’ya doin’—just fine, just fein!”8

The sadness of Grosz in America is that his roles were not only of another place and another time, but that they were not understood. He tried to revive his image as the Dada clown in a famous collage he made in 1957. It shows the artist’s face, in clown’s makeup, on the body of a showgirl, with Manhattan in the background. In his left hand, Grosz, “der Clown von New York,” carries a bottle of bourbon (see page 26).

In May of that same year, Grosz gave a speech in New York, after receiving the gold medal for graphic arts from the American Academy of Arts and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The speech, published in the catalog, is a distressing document. Grosz tells the audience how moved he is by this token of recognition. And he tries to explain his artistic philosophy. It is a spirited defense of figurative art in an age of abstract expressionism. He describes the limitations of satire and explains his desire to be an artist of nature. It is a cry from the heart, a desperate apologia pro vita sua, but the audience thinks he is clowning, and interrupts his speech with howls of laughter. As the audience howls, he begins to dance around the microphone, like a mad Indian. Pegeen Sullivan, Grosz’s dealer in New York, cried with embarrassment. But the painter Jack Levine thought the spectacle was just great—a Dada happening straight from the Weimar Republic.


Oh, spiffing world, oh funfair,
Blessed freakshow,
Watch out! Here comes Grosz,
The saddest man in Europe,
“A phenomenon of sadness.”
Stiff hat in the back of the neck,
No slouch!!!!
Nigger songs in the skull,
Colorful as fields of hyacinths,
Or turbulent D-trains,
Clattering across rattling bridges
Ragtime dancers,
At the fence, waiting in the crowd,
For Rob. E. Lee.
—George Grosz9

George Grosz’s American dream came to him very early on. As a small boy in a garrison town in Pomerania, where his mother ran the officers’ mess, he read American stories about Buffalo Bill and Nick Carter. And like every German boy (still), he read Karl May’s Wild West novels about Old Shatterhand, the German-American hero, and his loyal Indian friend Winnetou. He also loved James Fenimore Cooper’s stories, which earned him one of his many nicknames, “Leatherstocking.”

Barnum and Bailey’s circus, complete with General Tom Thumb in full dress uniform, came to town. Then there were those fabled men who had tried their luck in the US, and come back to visit the old country, impressing the young Grosz with their padded shoulders, patent-leather shoes, and easy manners. America was a fantasy-land of wild adventures, fabulous riches, cowboys and Indians, wide-open spaces. One can still taste the atmosphere of these turn-of-the-century German American dreams in Karl May’s old house, now a museum, in a suburb of Dresden. “Villa Shatterhand” is stuffed with Western paraphernalia: Indian headdresses, trapper’s hats, Colts, Henry rifles, and bad oil paintings of life on the prairies. When Karl May wrote his tales of the Wild West, he had never set foot in America.

In 1916, like his friend and fellow Dadaist John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld), George Grosz chose to Anglicize his name when he signed his drawings for Berlin magazines. This was a gesture of contempt for the anti-British and anti-American propaganda of World War I. But Grosz’s Americanism was also one of his many public poses. In true Dadaist fashion, the posing was part of his art. Like Karl May (not, I hasten to say, a Dadaist), he liked to be photographed in different guises: as an American gangster brandishing a revolver, or as a boxer, or as a kind of Mack the Knife, about to stab his wife with a dagger.

One of his drawings of 1916 was titled Picture of Texas for my Friend Chingachgook, a picture of squinting, corncob-pipe-smoking horsemen and an imperturbable Indian. There is also a magnificent drawing of New York City called Memory of New York, a crazy jumble of skyscrapers, elevated trains, and neon signs. Of course, Grosz had no memories of New York, any more than James Fenimore Cooper’s fabled Indian was his friend. These were part of his elaborate fantasies. He liked to present himself as George Grosz, the American artist or, on occasion, as “Dr. William King Thomas,” American doctor and mass murderer—this was when he wasn’t pretending to be a Dutch businessman, or a Prussian aristocrat. One of his poems begins with the line: “I shoot off my gun, early, when I step out of my log cabin….” There was a picture on the wall of his studio of Henry Ford, with the inscription (written by Grosz himself): “To George Grosz, the artist, from his admirer, Henry Ford.”

Childish stuff. But Grosz was not the only one with such dreams. America was in the Berlin air, like the shimmy, the “nigger songs,” and the jazz music of Mr. Meshugge and his band, playing at the Cafe Oranienburger Tor. Thomas Mann called Berlin the “Prussian-American metropolis.” Even Bertolt Brecht, who was hardly an admirer of Yankee capitalism, fantasized about America. (Grosz much admired Brecht’s American-style suits.) But just as Brecht’s song about whiskey bars and the moon of Alabama belongs to Berlin, not the actual US, Grosz’s drawings of Manhattan sky-scrapers and Texas saloons fit with his other work in Germany. They are German in a way that his later allegories about the European apocalypse were never part of the American scene. Grosz, “the American artist,” was German in the way the Rolling Stones are British, even, or perhaps especially, when they imitate Americans.

Wieland Herzfelde shrewdly described Grosz’s American poses and drawings as “a kind of satire of his own wishful dreams.”10 This, too, is not unlike European rock stars singing about Memphis, Tennessee, in exaggerated, shit-kicking style. Someone should write a book one day about the American fantasies that are part of European popular culture. Grosz would merit a major chapter. Then, barely a decade after Grosz’s death, American pop culture repaid the compliment by turning prewar Berlin into an erotic fetish: “Life is a cabaret, old friend,” and so on.

Love and ridicule, like lust and loathing, are always close together in Grosz’s work. In an essay that established Grosz’s name in Berlin, the writer Theodor Däubler wrote that Grosz was “never elegiac: out of his cowboy-romanticism, and his longing for skyscrapers, he created a perfectly real Wild West in Berlin.”11 Perhaps this is why these drawings are convincing, whereas the oil paintings of his nightmares in New York are not. In 1916, he tried to make his American fantasies look real, not real in the photographic sense, but concrete, palpable, as though sketched from life.

Even his most allegorical works of the Berlin period are full of beautifully observed details. Pillars of Society (1926) is a good example. One of the four pillars of the Weimar Republic is the porcine priest, blindly preaching as the buildings burn and the soldiers rampage behind him. The other three are the journalist, with a bedpan on his head, the politician, with a pile of steaming shit instead of a brain, and the monocled military officer, with the tin-pot mirage of a Wilhelminian cavalry officer emerging from his empty skull. The message of the painting is as crude as, say, a 1960s protest song by Bob Dylan. But that is not what makes it a work of art. It is the details that count: the stiff white collars, the moustaches, the marble-topped café table, the duel-scarred cheeks.

Hans Sahl recalls meeting Grosz after the war, at an exhibition of the work of Edvard Munch, in Munich. Grosz, sporting a monocle, was loudly denouncing Munch for the sloppy way he painted clothes. “A great painter,” he said to Sahl, “must also be a great tailor. He must know how to make shirts, gloves, ties, walking sticks….”12 Grosz knew what he was talking about. He was always fastidious, in his work and about his personal appearance. There is a small drawing, made in 1917, of a man washing the blood off his hands, after having severed the head of his female victim with an axe. There is a curious fussiness about the scene: the woman’s lace-up shoes neatly placed under the bed, the killer’s pocket watch laid on the table, and his jacket and cane, carefully folded and tidied away. This murderer knew how to take care of himself.

Grosz was a dandy. He liked to sit alone at the Café des Westens, powdered and rouged, dressed in a chocolate-brown suit, his cane, topped with an ivory skull, beside him. He affected the detachment of the dandy, the contempt for the bourgeois world, particularly the world of the German bourgeois, the Spiesser. Wolfgang Cillessen remarks in his catalog essay that Grosz needed the contrast of German ugliness to set off his own cultivated elegance. Grosz: “To be German is always to be tasteless, stupid, ugly, fat, stiff; to be unable, at the age of forty, to climb a ladder, to be badly dressed. To be German means to be a reactionary of the worst kind; it means that of a hundred people, only one will keep his whole body clean.” 13

But Grosz was not as detached as all that. Nor was he just a preacher against German depravity, even though another one of his roles was that of the moralist. There is a self-portrait of Grosz posing as a stern German schoolmaster, pointing a warning finger. It is entitled Self-portrait as a Warner (1927). A moralist cannot be completely detached. True dandies don’t warn, they just display their style. But Grosz had, in Cillessen’s happy phrase, a “voluptuous fascination” with the objects of his scorn. This is what made him such a master of satire, a true disciple of Hogarth, whom Grosz so much admired. Berlin of the 1920s may have been vulgar, grasping, heartless, and full of Spiesser, but it was sexy, too. For some, some of the time, life was indeed a cabaret. Even the Spiesser, in a crude, swinish way, were sexy. It was that sexiness that Grosz managed to capture in many of his drawings.

Take his pictures of brothels, with their thick, leering customers pawing and tickling half-dressed whores. There is an element of loathing in these drawings and watercolors, maybe even of warning. But also of voluptuous fascination. The way his artist’s eye undresses women in the streets, and sees through the walls of tenement buildings, is meant to expose the hypocrisy of bourgeois city life, the filth behind the respectable façade, but it is also a form of voyeurism, of delight in what his X-ray view reveals. What is true of whores and pimps is true of the beery men at their regular café tables, or the fat, complacent bourgeois families, sitting around pianos or Christmas trees, or even of the grotesque priests and hideous bankers: this was Grosz’s world. He knew it intimately. He was part of it. He was—as he admits in his autobiography—a bit of a Spiesser himself.

Grosz was a political artist in the sense that he used his art as a polemical weapon. But he was an agitator more than a propagandist, a moralist more than a political thinker. He joined the German Communist Party, but began to lose faith in progress and the proletarian revolution by the early 1920s—a trip in 1922 to the USSR didn’t help. By the time he left for the US, he had lost it completely. He once said that the larger the crowd he went with, the more of an individualist he became. Brecht recognized this, and never saw Grosz as a reliable Party man. Grosz was not so much in favor of communism, or social democracy, as against the smug, fat face of German authority. This suited his Communist friends, editors, and publishers fine.

Grosz lost faith not only in communism but also in the efficacy of political art. In his autobiography, he wrote that he “had gradually come to see that the propaganda value of art had been highly overrated, that politically committed artists mistook its effects on themselves for the reaction of the ‘beloved proletarian masses.’ ” 14 He still did marvelous drawings, watercolors, and some paintings after 1923, but nothing, in my view, ever reached the savage beauty of his Ecce Homo collection, or the malice of the “lavatory graffiti” drawings of 1916-1917. He later considered satire a minor art, but it was there, and not in his attempts at fine art, that he excelled. He lifted the art of shocking the bourgeois to a level of greatness.

At his best, he was so good that his pictures still have the power to shock. Pausing at the Nationalgalerie in front of some drawings made in 1921, I overheard a conversation between three Germans, all aged around sixty: two paunchy men, and a woman in a green felt hat. Looking at a picture of obese, cigar-smoking worthies, who were wearing chamber pots on their heads, the woman said, “Revolting!” Her friends agreed. One of the men boomed that he couldn’t understand “this nonsense about Spiesser, as though everyone who is normal and decent were a Spiesser.” “Quite so,” said the other man just as loudly, “quite so.” Then, suddenly, he was struck by a thought: Was Grosz a Jew? “No, no,” said his friend, “no, no, not a Jew, no, no, not that.”

Grosz began to realize in the US “that caricatures are prized chiefly in periods of cultural decline, that life and death are too fundamental to be subjects of mockery and cheap jibes.”15 This is a little too disparaging of the satirist’s art, but Grosz was right about the last part. The Third Reich was not a laughing matter. For satire to work, or indeed to be possible at all, a certain amount of political and social freedom is needed. And people have to be shockable. The Weimar Republic, with its veneer of bourgeois respectability, its free press, its licentiousness, its greed, and its bumbling politicians, was a perfect target for wicked mockery. As the radical journalist Kurt Tucholsky said: “It is crying out for satire.”

But when the Spiesser turn into killers, there is not much a satirist can do, for there is no one left to shock. The reality of Hitler’s Germany was more shocking than any lampoon could be. Grosz did his best in his allegorical paintings, but he failed, because that was not his style, and because the real thing was too over-whelming. His Berlin had already begun to disintegrate some years before he left Germany. By 1930, the Weimar Republic was tottering. A week after Grosz arrived for the second time in New York, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The Republic that had filled Grosz with such voluptuous loathing was gone. In 1946, Grosz looked back on the earliest years of his career with nostalgia:

Yes, I loved Dresden. It was a good, romantic time. And after that, Berlin. My god, the air was full of stimulation. It was lovely to sit at the Café Josty. The old and new Sezession. It’s all gone. Only dust remains. Tree stumps, filth, hunger and cold. We, who still experienced the “old,” or at least the last years of Wilhelminian civilization, can compare, and the comparison, I’m afraid, does not favor our own time. (Letter to Herbert Fiedler, February 1946.)

Grosz had never really wished to go back. But his wife wanted to live in Germany again. And so it was that a week after his sad speech and Indian dance at the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1959, they returned to Berlin. Grosz was surprised at how American the city had become. He also found life slower and more relaxed: “One feels that of every 100 Berliners, 101 are pensioners.”16 He sent a postcard to Rosina Florio, the director of the Art Students League, begging her to ask him back to New York. She was on holiday when the card arrived. By the time she read it, Grosz was dead. After a night of heavy drinking, he had choked on his own vomit.

This Issue

July 13, 1995