Mainstream art history oftentimes downplays or even deliberately obscures leftist political allegiances of the early twentieth-century artists. This is not the case for George Grosz. A fearless communist in the early 1920s, he tirelessly strove to distance himself from communist politics later in his life.
The key figure of the Dada and New Objectivity movements, the pioneer of photomontage, and an experimental costume designer, Grosz is most famous for his bitter political caricatures. Traumatized as an infantryman by a short exposure to World War I’s battlefields, Grosz filled his drawings and paintings with fullhearted hatred and disgust of Germany’s militarist and nationalist elites and idling middle classes.
If judged by Grosz’s works, Weimar-period Berlin was exclusively populated by ugly men and women indulged in an endless carousel of greed and lust. His most common urban types were exposed prostituted women, disgusting pimps, and respectable ladies and gentlemen with the pronounced features of decomposition on their enlightened faces.
Grosz’s enormously distorted physiognomic depiction of greedy capitalists and miserable petit bourgeoisie gained him praise from Vladimir Lenin, who had been said to appreciate his work, especially the 1920 printed collection of political cartoons The Face of the Ruling Class.
However, Grosz’s most powerful works are perhaps not the ones that reflect his personal repugnance of morally degraded elites but the ones in which his sharp eye and pencil capture the workings of a historical process. In 1923, ten years before the Nazis rose to power, Grosz drew a caricature of Adolf Hitler in a furry shift and a necklace of teeth, contrasted with a facial expression of a bitter, deeply offended little man, an obvious misfit for the role of a dignified heir of the great German myth. Another visionary drawing that even today could easily be seen as offensive by right-wing Christian fundamentalists depicts the crucified Christ in a gas mask and combat boots.
Grosz had to withstand fierce public obstruction for his art. His alarming critique of right-wing nationalist and militarist politics was largely perceived as hyperbolic and dismissed as both anti-German and anti-Christian. Grosz received personal threats and legal accusations of blasphemy.
It was not just political art however. As the chaos of the Weimar period heated up, Grosz grew more and more disappointed in communist politics at large. The biggest bummer for him was a six-month tour of Soviet Russia in 1922. In his autobiographical account of that trip, almost as bitter and dismissive as his early caricatures, Grosz draws a discouraging and gloomy picture of both the “ruling” masses of workers and peasants and their revolutionary leaders. Grosz also finds no inspiration in Soviet revolutionary art. The Proletkult seemed to him a vulgar Marxist misunderstanding of the nature of artistic talent, which he believed was a deeply ingrained and highly individual quality that could not be nurtured by the social environment. In constructivism, he only saw the dehumanizing cult of machinery and mechanization.
It should be said though that his account of the Russia trip first appeared in 1955 and might rightly be considered an attempt on Grosz’s part to fit into the mainstream of American life at the time. In 1933 shortly before Hitler came to power, Grosz left for New York, where he was offered a teaching position. This timely offer did not only save his life but promised a new beginning. Grosz hoped to find new impulses for his work and finally “move away from hatred to love” on US soil.
This did not happen. A notorious critic of German nationalism, who anglified his first and last name as an antipatriotic gesture, Grosz found himself culturally uprooted in the United States. In art, his figurative style contrasted with the era’s dominant abstract expressionism propelled by his more successful fellow Europeans. He wanted to become an American illustrator, but his over-the-top style was a poor fit for commercial print media. In 1959 Grosz returned to Berlin, commenting that his American dream turned out to be a soap bubble. A few weeks later, he slipped on the stairs of his apartment after a night out with friends. He never regained consciousness and died of heart failure the same morning.
During one of his trials for blasphemy, Grosz explained himself in the following way: “When the times are very troubled, when the foundations are shaken, the artist cannot stand aside, especially not the talented artist with his greater sensitivity. That is why, without wanting to, he will be political. . . .”
One should be wary of drawing historical parallels to understand the current moment, but our times seem to be no less troubled than those of Grosz. What it means to be political for an artist and intellectual today is something that we have to figure out for ourselves, and it is definitely not Grosz’s aesthetics that we can turn to for inspiration. It is his life. Strange enough, both the smashing class hatred of Grosz’s early art and his deepest personal disappointment with the progressive politics of the time seem equally relatable today. All of us should probably be prepared to embrace a similarly contradictory path, filled with bitterness and pain, and to pick up the fight where Grosz had left it, with a humble hope that we will be slightly more successful in it than he was.