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George Grosz

George Grosz

George Grosz, The Hero, c. 1936, lithograph. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Robert Roth

About the Artist

"I wanted to protest against this world of mutual destruction...I saw heroism, but it seemed to be blind...what I saw more was misery, stupidity, hunger, cowardice and horror." (1) Georg Grosz, 1930

"Among Germans who have a healthy, natural sense of judgment - experts as well as laymen - the artistic talents of Herr Grosz will find themselves much less esteemed. Grosz is a skillful political agitator, who uses his pencil, rather than words, for his propaganda. He does not belong on the side of German artists, but with Bolshevists or rather nihilist politicians."(2) Hannoverischer Courier, 5 December 1930

"Art is in danger. Today's artist, unless he wants to be useless, an antiquated misfit, can only choose between technology or class war propaganda. In both cases he must give up "pure art". Either he joins the ranks of architects, engineers, and ad men who develop industrial strength and who exploit the world, or he, as depictor and critic of the face of our time, as propagandist and defender of the revolutionary ideas and its followers, enters into the army of the oppressed who fight for their just share of the worth of the world and for a sensible social organization of life."(3) George Grosz, 1925

Grosz is best known most for his drawings done during the time of the Weimar Republic. The Hero, a drawing of one of the many pathetic, wounded veterans of the First World War, exhibits all of the characteristics of Grosz's art at that time. It is crudely drawn, the draughtmanship reflecting and augmenting the subject matter. It is critical of both the society that started the war, the Second Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm, and the society that tolerated the impoverishment of the poor and the veterans after the war, that of the Weimar Republic. Although glad to be done with the Kaiser and the German aristocracy, Grosz, with his growing commitment to the Communist Party, was highly critical of the new regime.

Grosz's early life was marked by loss and frequent upheaval. Born in Berlin, but living in the country, his father died when he was eight and the family was forced by necessity to move to Berlin. Later his mother found work with a Prussian officers' casino and the family moved back to the country. In 1909, he was accepted at the Dresden Academy of Art, where he stayed until 1911. He then moved on to Berlin, where he studied at the School of Arts and Crafts. The First World War came and, in November 1914, he enlisted. Released on medical grounds, he was recalled in January 1917 only to be released in April on the grounds of being mentally unfit. Throughout this time, he worked on refining his technique and his subject matter. His experience with the War and the collapse that came afterwards led him to certain decisions in his work. Initially a Dadaist dandy, he gradually embraced the ideals of communism, and turned his pen to social criticism. This pen would get him in trouble; he was brought to trial, due to right wing pressure, three times for a series of drawings.

Why is this drawing deliberately crude? There is not the attention to fine line work that is associated with artists that preceded Grosz, from Leonardo to Degas, and there is the possibility that this was all Grosz was capable of. The artist, though, is depicting a pathetic and poignant scene; that of a mutilated and crippled war veteran, a step above begging, trying to sell wilted flowers to indifferent passerbys. Grosz uses the linear technique to amplify his distaste and disgust of German society of the time. Moreover his scathing criticism escapes no one. The society that casts off veterans and the poor as refuse is attacked but there is also an implicit criticism of this hero as well. Was he duped into fighting for something that ultimately rejected him or did he go willingly? In terms of Grosz's political thoughts at the time, is the hero better served by acquiescing and fading away by the side rather than organizing and fighting the society that scarred him? Would the hero, given half a chance, fight for that society again?

Grosz gradually moved away from communism, in 1933 branded a "petty-bourgeois traitor and renegade", and his art moved away with him. The Hero is a polemical work, aimed at the corrupted heart of the Weimar Republic. It does not, though, depict the triumph of the worker's revolution. Its target is broader; human stupidity, gullibility and frailty in all its forms, from the right to the left, from the society to the individual.

(1) Flavell, Mary Kay, George Grosz: A Biography, (Yale University Press, New Haven), 1988, p.27
(2) Flavell, p. 64
(3) Lewis, Beth Irwin, George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic, (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 1991, p. 118

Suggested Reading

George Grosz, The Autobiography of George Grosz: a small yes and a big no (trans. Arnold J. Pomerans), (Allison and Busby, N.Y.), 1982

Mary Kay Flavell, George Grosz: A Biography, (Yale University Press, New Haven), 1988

Beth Irwin Lewis, George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 1991

Michael Stevenson
Research Assistant
Graduate Student - Painting and Drawing
Fall 1997