He disguised himself as Count Orffyreus, William King Thomas, his own butler, a cowboy, a Dutch businessman and what’s not. Artist George Grosz, the great satirical chronicler of the years between the wars, loved impersonation.
Photo by: Berlin GTafel Grosz
Born in Berlin as Georg Gross in 1893 on July 26th, he studied at the School of Arts and Crafts and as a student was a regular at the “Café des Westens”, where the German Expressionists gathered.When the First World War broke out, young and naïve, Grosz enlisted himself in the military service but soon suffered a breakdown and was admitted in a military mental asylum, being declared insane. Artistically, however, he turned the inspiration to paper and canvas. This is when he began capturing demoralized Berlin in his early series of about 20 paintings (half of which are now lost and others in private collections) – Gefährliche Straße – depicting the night life of Berlin.
By 1920, he became a key figure of the Dada movement, which was rooted in disbelief that a conflict as absurdly long and devastating as WWI could have been fought in the name of progress. In defeated and chaotic Berlin, Dadaists staged provocative performances, where Grosz made a name for himself doing absurd tap dances. He also was one of the pioneers for the photomontage technique, which involved assembling fragments of photographs to create a synthetic new image, a metaphor for a fractured Europe pieced together after the war.
Photo by: Christian von Holst und George Grosz, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
Photo by: Erich Büttner - Portrait George Grosz, 1931
Photo by: Die Kunst ist tot, Tatlin
Unarguably, he was the most avid chronicler of Berlin of that era, the lewdest, most immoral city in Europe at that time, with cabaret acts on every corner, brothels thriving, cocaine available in the city’s nightclubs for half the price of an average dinner.Oh, the Weimar years! Grosz’ art works of that time give off a heavy whiff of social decadence and political corruption, like his watercolor Orgie, for example.
His drawing series The Face of the Ruling Class (1921), depicting greedy capitalists, arrogant bourgeoisie and nouveaux riches, and Ecce Homo (1922), portraying lives in bordels, sparked an outrage in the Berlin society and caused numerous police confiscations and bans for being pornographic.
He lived quite a life, or many lives, perhaps. He moved to Paris and did a study of the Dingo bar where Hemingway and Fitzgerald first met and hung out; for a while he was even a member of the Communist Party, receiving his membership card personally from Rosa Luxemburg; he was hated by Hitler and was one of the first artists to be labelled “degenerate” by the Third Reich.
Considered a “Cultural Bolshevist Number One” by the Nazis, Grosz immigrated to the U.S. and became an American citizen in 1938, where he taught at the Columbia University.After achieving renown in Germany and abroad, he, nevertheless, found it difficult to establish himself in America.
He left Berlin many times, but the fate kept bringing him back. By the 1950s, Grosz had started to drink heavily. His wife Eva hoped that a change of surroundings — namely a return to post-Nazi Germany — would help him overcome the addiction. In May 1958, they moved into her parents’ old apartment in West Berlin. But only a month later, falling down the stairs after a heavy night’s drinking, Grosz died. He was 65.
This 9-minute YouTube video walks you through over 90 of Grosz’s works. We also like reading his autobiography A Little Yes and a Big No, which he published during his American years (there are other great books about the artist available at the Dussmann bookstore). You can also visit his works along other Weimar-era artists at the Neue Nationalgalerie, which will re-open its doors in a month with an exhibition Art of Society. In 1960, (and as another excellent resource) Grosz was the subject of the Oscar-nominated short film George Grosz' Interregnum.