Grosz, George (1893–1959)

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GROSZ, GEORGE (1893–1959)


German artist.

George Grosz, originally named Georg Ehrenfried Groß, was born in Berlin. After earning his diploma from the Royal Academy of Beaux-Arts in Dresden, he volunteered as a medical recruit in November 1914 in order to avoid the draft and was sent to the front. He received a medical discharge in 1915 and changed his name the following year as an act of protest against German nationalism and patriotism. He was joined in this by his artist friend Helmut Herzfelde, who renamed himself John Heartfield. He was called up again in 1917, became severely depressed, and was interned at the psychiatric hospital in Görden before being definitively discharged.

Grosz returned to a Berlin that seemed to him cold and gray. The pessimism he felt because of the war and his hospitalization among the maimed and wounded led him to produce oil paintings depicting apocalyptic end-of-war scenes. In his Metropolis (1916–1917), expressionist elements compete with futurist ones, with entangled lines, multiple planes, and sticklike, almost transparent figures suggesting the simultaneity of the various events being depicted. The predominance of orange-red speaks of fire, destruction, and the swirling abyss. The same spirit haunts Widmung an Oskar Panizza (1917–1918; Homage to Oskar Panizza), which expresses his disgust with war and his hatred of the Catholic Church and the political authorities. In this visionary representation of universal destruction, Grosz depicts half-human characters in ridiculous poses: "A diabolical procession of beings no longer at all human steals down a foreign street, with Alcohol, Syphilis and the Plague written on their faces.… I was protesting against a Humanity gone crazy, by painting it" (quoted in Kranzfelder, p. 23).

In 1917 Grosz cofounded Berlin's Dada movement with Richard Huelsenbeck and Raoul Hausmann. Dada furnished a climate, philosophy, and method that permitted Grosz to unleash himself against the institutions of the young Weimar Republic. He mixed watercolor, collage, ink, and pencil. In oil paintings such as Grauer Tag (1921; Gray day), he caricatured what he called the Organizers, bourgeois war profiteers crushing their victims (workers or communists), who are compartmentalized by a stylized architecture averse to linear spaces.

After joining the Communist Party in 1918, "Marshal Dada" (as he nicknamed himself) rejected bourgeois traditions and engaged in a radical artistic political combat, in which the artist is dedicated to revolutionary change. In his drawing Die Kommunisten Fallen und die Devisen Steigen (1919; The Communists fall and the foreign exchange rises), made in 1919, the same year Spartacus League founders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were assassinated, Grosz denounced the crushing of the Spartacist revolution by Social Democratic leaders. His satirical drawings were characteristic of the revolutionary art and politics he had published in numerous journals since 1910, including Ulk, Lustige Blätter, and Editions Malik. To further the revolution he founded a satirical journal, Die Pleite, with the Herzfelde brothers, which later appeared under the name Schutzhaft, both of which were censored when they first appeared. Grosz defined himself as an "impartial and scientific observer" of German society. His rapid, uncorrected sketches from 1920 through 1923 focused on the situation immediately after the war and during the periods of runaway inflation; they depict cafés and street scenes filled with caricatured figures, including sinister-looking bourgeois humiliating maimed and dismembered veterans. His lines are blistering, deformed, and overlaid by watercolors. He made use of refined observation to denounce a bruised society: "In this way, bit by bit I developed the harsh and decisive style I needed to depict what was inspired in me by my absolute disgust with Men."

Grosz gave these remarks material content in his collection Ecce Homo, which was received with accusations that he was degrading public morals. In Ecce Homo (published in 1922–1923) and in Das Neue Gesicht der Herrschenden Klasse: 55 Politische Zeichunungen (The new face of the ruling class: 55 political drawings), published in 1922, he depicted bourgeois society at its most vulnerable point by exposing its private life, unveiling the obsessions and sexual excesses of a bourgeois hiding behind the mask of the upright man and defender of political morality.

As a friend of the painter Otto Dix, Grosz took part in the 1925 exposition New Objectivity at the Kuntshalle in Mannheim. Between 1925 and 1928 he returned to painting and the battle waged on: Die Stützen der Gesellschaft (1926; Pillars of society) and The Agitator (1928) denounced the enemies of democracy. As an artist he came to constitute a kind of memorial to the conscience of an entire nation. His status as a chronicler was transformed into that of clairvoyant witness to the rise of Nazism, and he became one of the most hated artists under the Third Reich, which labeled his works "degenerate" and subsequently destroyed them. He left for the United States in 1933 and in 1941 began to teach at Columbia University. As a distant observer of the political situation in Germany, he produced works that translated his personal dismay into visual form. Although his portraits and watercolors from this period appeared tranquil on the surface, they were still fueled by the underlying cynicism that marked his early work. He published his autobiography in 1946 before returning to Berlin, where he died in 1959.

See alsoCommunism; Dada; Degenerate Art Exhibit; Dix, Otto; Liebknecht, Karl; Luxemburg, Rosa; Nazism; World War I.


Primary Sources

Grosz, George. Un petit oui et un grand non. Translated by Christian Bounay. Paris, 1990.

Secondary Sources

Flavell, M. Kay. George Grosz: A Biography. New Haven, Conn., 1988.

Grosz/Heartfield: The Artist as Social Critic, October 1–November 8, 1980, University Gallery University of Minnesota. Minneapolis, Minn., 1980.

Hess, Hans. George Grosz. New Haven, Conn., 1985.

Kranzfelder, Ivo. George Grosz. Translated by Annie Berthold. Cologne, 2001.

Caroline Tron-Carroz

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Grosz, George (1893–1959)

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