George Grosz and the German Dadaists.
Kenny McEwan continues our series looking at political artists.
In art the artist uses his environment as much as his imagination to create. They find inspiration and subject matter in the world that surrounds them, sometimes no matter how bleak, destructive or cruel that world is. Out of the madness of the First World War, an art movement was formed that would eventually evolve into Surrealism, one of the most influential movements of the Twentieth century.
Dadaism* grew out of the despair felt by many artists at the mindless destruction of WWI, soon many painters, sculptors and poets joined. Their idea was that as traditional art and culture was mostly created by the kind of people who made possible the horrors of WWI, then this art must be swept away and replaced by something different. Dadaism founded in 1915 in Zurich, gave emphasis to the illogical and absurd, with irony, cynicism and anarchy, playing a major part in their works.
A club, Cabaret Voltaire, was opened to attract like minded artists in Zurich, however, the movement soon found proponents across Europe and in the USA. In 1917 the French artist Marcel Duchamp created one of the most famous of Dadaist statements in New York. He turned a man's urinal on its back and signed it R Mutt. This, known as a 'ready made' or 'found object' was an attack on the traditional preconceptions of what art is, also by signing it he questions the value attributed to a signature.
Whilst many Dadaists were apolitical, attacking everything, some drew political conclusions from the carnage surrounding them. In Berlin a young caricaturist George Grosz was one of them. Grosz, who in 1917 anglicised his name in a protest at the jingoism prevalent in Germany at that time, was one of the founders of Club Dada in Berlin along with John Heartfield, and Roul Hausmann among others. Their contributions to the Dada movement expressed a more concerted attack on those responsible for the death and destruction of the war. Often very satirical they drew sharp contrasts between the lives of those who promote the war, the ruling class and those who fight it, the working Class. One such drawing by Grosz entitled 'Fit for Active Service' (1918) depicts a rotten, skeletal corpse being declared fit to fight on the front line by a corpulent doctor. Grosz himself had twice been called up and twice discharged for being unfit. On the second occasion he was saved from a firing squad by the intervention of an influential patron.
Grosz allied himself with the left and joined the German Communist party (KDP) in 1919 visiting the USSR in 1922. During this visit he met both Lenin and Trotsky. He declared along with Heartfield, who also joined, 'Art is dead, long live Tatlin's machine art'.
This reference to the Russian Constructivist, Sculptor and Architect, was intended as an expression of support for the expected triumph of modern art in Russia. He also contributed many illustrations for left wing magazines and books. One such book by Wieland Hertzfelde 'Die Tragigrotesken der Nacht' (The Grotesque Tragedy of the Night - 1920), features drawings of bloated businessmen and Generals eating dinner whilst soldiers murder protesters and civilians.
One drawing in particular is now called 'The fall of the Communists' and depicts the freikorps being used by the SDP leader Gustav Noske to crush the KDP. Grosz himself had taken part in the ill fated Sparticus Rebellion. Anxious not to be seen just as a caricaturist, Grosz began to produce more oils and watercolours, covering similar subjects. Paintings such as 'The Face of the Ruling Class' (1921) and 'The Pillars of Society' (1926) earned him an international reputation as a leading artist of the Left.
In these paintings Grosz uses his skills as a caricaturist to produce vivid, grotesque, nightmarish, portrayals of those who control society. Businessmen, Clergy, Generals, are all portrayed not as the polished, fine, refined gentlemen of Academy art, but as vicious, selfish, and uncaring individuals. Almost from the start Grosz and the others found themselves in trouble with the people they were satirising. During the First international Dada fair held in Berlin, Grosz and Heartfield were charged with defaming the military for among other things sticking a pig's head on top of a dummy dressed in a military uniform. On this occasion he was fined 300 Marks.
On many other occasions he was charged with obscenity and blasphemy for his frank depiction of issues like poverty, prostitution, greed and the relation these things have to wealth, the Church and the State. One painting depicts a prostitute forced to sell herself to an uncaring, unfeeling businessman. Entitled 'Daum Marries her Pedantic Automation' (1920), it depicts the businessman being fed a series of numbers through the top of his head which then feeds through a machine which has replaced his internal organs, his "wife" in a state of partial undress looks on at the numbers being fed in.
By the mid 1920s the Dada movement had begun to split, Andre Breton a Frenchman founded the Surrealist movement. This linked the original concept of Dada with the new theories of Sigmund Freud, but in a much more organised and doctrinaire way. Individuals like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Man Ray, were some of the principal artists in this new and revolutionary movement. In Germany, however, a movement called, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) linked the Dadaists' satire to the realist eliminates of the German Expressionists.
Whilst the individuals involved like Otto Dix, Grosz and Heartfield had differing styles they were all linked by common themes Horror of war, social hypocrisy, and moral decadence, the plight of the poor and the rise of Nazism, united this group.
Examples of these works include 'Cardplaying War-cripples' (1920) by Dix. The war cripple was a common sight in post war Germany, but here they are transformed into a symbols of a mutilated, dehumanised corrupt society. Heartfield's 'Adolf the Superman Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk' is a commentary on the relationship between the Nazis and Big Business. This montage was used as an anti-Nazi poster in 1932. Grosz himself despite leaving the KDP in 1924, concerned about the changes that were occurring in Russia after the death of Lenin, nevertheless still produced many biting, savage indictments of the state of the poor in Germanys Weimar Republic. His 'Berlin Streetscene' (1930) depicts a well-heeled man flirting with an equally affluent woman whilst both ignore the old threadbare man begging for some money. Time, however. was running out for Grosz and his fellow artists, with the rise of the Nazis. In 1933 he left Germany for the United States.
Here he was offered a teaching post at the Art Students League of America. It was hoped that his brilliant satirical style would be used to good effect in poverty blighted America. Despairing, however, that he would only be remembered as a political satirist and not a genuine artist in his own right, Grosz changed his subject matter to romantic landscapes or apocalyptic visions of the future. Paintings such as 'Portrait of the Poet Max Herman-Neiss' (1925) do indeed show that he was an artist of great talent, who could create excellent paintings outwith his normal subject matter. In the end ,however, he became depressed and isolated in New York and in 1959 he declared that his "American dream turned out to be a soap bubble."
Returning to Berlin later that year he fell down a flight of stairs and died. George Grosz along with a handful of others at the beginning of the last century have left us a huge legacy. Not only, in their brilliant anti-war paintings, or their predictions of the rise of fascism in Germany, but, in being part of a driving force which at a very bleak point in human history produced art which eventually altered the preconceptions of what art is, and how it should be created and understood.
Most of George Grosz paintings and drawings are in German or US galleries and many of the websites dedicated to him are in German. However, his 'Suicide' is in the Tate Modern, and if you type his name into a search engine you will find some sites that will contain many of the paintings or drawing discussed.