In 1914 George Grosz enlisted in the military, as did many young German intellectuals. The horrors of war took a toll on the artist, who suffered a mental breakdown twice during his service in the military. Drawings from his time spent in the army, such as Shell done in 1915, show Grosz’ anxiety towards the viciousness and gore of war (Cat. 15). He was eventually discharged in 1917 and deemed permanently unfit for service.2 In his drawing Fit for Active Service (K.V.), completed shortly after his discharge from the army, there is an obvious bitterness towards the German military who, in Grosz’ opinion, would deem even a skeleton fit for duty (Cat. 16).
Upon returning to Berlin in 1918, Grosz joined the Dadaists in their aggressive critiques of the war and German popular culture. His anti-war sentiments prompted Grosz to join the German Communist Party and to support the revolution.3 Grosz’ resentment towards the National Social Party is evident in his drawing Communists Fall and the Exchange Rates Rise! / Stamp out Famine, in which he depicts two overweight wealthy Germans toasting with wine, while havoc and destruction ensue around them (Cat. 18). Republican Automatons done in 1920 shows influence of the Dada Movement but also of Grosz’ view of German war supporters as faceless robots (Cat. 19). Grosz’ experience in World War I was perhaps the most critical event of his career, turning his attitude toward bitterness and hostility and fueling his desire for social and political critique.
In Berlin George Grosz accompanied Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, and Richard Huelsenbeck among many others in their Dada campaign of anarchy and senselessness. As a demonstration of “Propagandada,” Grosz waltzed through the streets of Berlin wearing a poster that read, “Dada, Dada über alles!”4 In his autobiography, Grosz describes Dada “meetings” in which the artists charged an admission fee and then insulted and shouted profanities at the audience. “We derided everything, respected nothing, spat upon everything: that was Dada.”5 Using humor and satire, the Dadaists portrayed public figures in compromising situations and questioned the role of art as personal expression favoring art as a means of political and social activism. Grosz in particular was greatly influenced by the art of children, the insane, fairgrounds, and graffiti.6 He admired this primitive and clumsy style that challenged the traditional notions of art as a polished and finished production.
The Dada Movement also endorsed the exploration of many different mediums such as watercolor, collage, assemblage and photomontage. Collage involved the combination of several types of mediums including painting, media images and found objects. These compilations exemplified the Dada spirit of randomness and obscurity. A great example of Grosz’ work with collage is Daum Marries her Pedantic Automaton George, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It (Cat. 21). This piece is watercolor, pencil, pen and collage done on cardboard, which even challenges the role of the canvas as the typical vessel for art production. Titles were also extremely important to the Dadaists who often used this opportunity to incorporate humor into their works.
After World War I, Berlin became a center for decadence, prostitution, corruption and promiscuity. Grosz describes this hostile time by saying, “It was a completely negative world, with gaily colored froth on top that many people mistook for the true, the happy Germany before the eruption of the new barbarism…Right under that short lived, lively surface of the shimmering swamp was fratricide and general discord, and regiments were formed for the final reckoning.”7 Grosz’ watercolor Diamond Racketeer is an example of the artist’s desire to expose the rampant corruption of Berlin (Cat. 20). Suspicious figures, illegal activities, crime and fornication were some of Grosz’ favorite subjects. He was not afraid to put on paper (or really any surface) the degradation of German culture that surrounded him everyday. In his publication Ecce Homo, Grosz compiled a collection of these explicit drawings including The White Slave Trader (Cat. 17). The title Ecce Homo roughly translates to “Behold the Man” the accusatory words spoken by Pontius Pilate when he presented Christ for persecution. The publication of this work led to Grosz’ conviction for blasphemy for which he incurred a 6,000 marks fine. Several of his portfolio plates were also confiscated and destroyed.8 Grosz was tried for other publications that supposedly blasphemed the church and denounced the military. These run-ins with the law may have influenced Grosz’ move towards the Neue Sachlichkeit movement and eventually his physical move to the United States in 1933.
Each of the works selected for this Dada exhibition by George Grosz exemplify the artist’s pessimistic mood and fervent anti-war mentality during the Weimar Republic instrumental in the chronicling of German society during this time and is now praised for his brutally honest and grotesque depictions of this culture. Dada may have been senseless, but so was the war. Grosz sought to expose this madness and perhaps his own through his intriguing style of art.
1 George Grosz, George Grosz: an Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (New York: Macmillian Publishing, 1983), 133.
2 Uwe M. Schneede, “Infernal Apparitions of Reality” in George Grosz: the Berlin Years, edited by Serge Sabarsky, 30-31. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1985.
3 Schneede, “Infernal Apparitions of Reality,” 31.
4 Ruth Berenson and Norbert Muhlen, “The Two Worlds of George Grosz” in George Grosz, 13. New York: Arts, Inc, 1960.
5 Grosz, George Grosz: an Autobiography, 134.
6 Colin Rhodes, “George Grosz. London,” The Burlington Magazine 139 (1997): 417.
7 Grosz, George Grosz: an Autobiography, 149-150.
8 “George Grosz: The Big No,”http://www.shu.ac.uk/sia/gallery/events/event.html?id=55.