Leering businessmen, navy officers with empty skulls, and ranting demagogues: George Grosz is understood for his savage depictions of the Weimar Republic’s ruling courses. It was on account of such works that he emigrated to america when Hitler seized energy. In exile, he turned reactionary himself, publishing an autobiography in 1946, during which he rejected his former political engagements (he had as soon as produced graphics for the Communist social gathering; now he mentioned they had been the identical because the fascists) and portray sentimental landscapes and erotic vignettes from his house in Lengthy Island.
That is how the story has often been advised, however a brand new exhibition places paid to the concept that his later profession was apolitical. Das kleine Grosz Museum, a tiny establishment devoted to the artist, which opened in a former petrol station in Berlin in 2022, has assembled a collection of Grosz’s works from the years instantly after the battle. The Stick Males drawings and work – the title is Grosz’s personal – present wasted figures in blasted landscapes. Ragged and broken, with large eyes they stare forlornly out on the viewer.
Though his critique is just not as direct in these works as in these of the Nineteen Twenties, Grosz is unmistakably casting a vitriolic gaze on the world after the Second World Struggle. These shackled, skeletal our bodies inevitably recommend survivors of the focus camps, a suspicion confirmed by the fences that encompass the figures. No surprise the work discovered no viewers in Germany, the place the battered populace ‘noticed themselves because the victims, and thus had the doubtful luck of not having to consider the actual ones’, as Harald Jähner places it in his account of the interval, Aftermath: Life within the Fallout of the Third Reich (2019).
However there’s an ambiguity at work right here. After the defeat, the previous supporters of the Nazis additionally starved. Grosz was in frequent correspondence with mates who despatched letters complaining in regards to the circumstances in Germany. He included these studies into work such because the watercolour Disturbed Whereas Consuming (1947). Right here, the emaciated figures are spectres on the feast of a rotund household guzzling chops and ice lotions, in what appears to be an unflattering portrait of American affluence. Not all these figures, nevertheless, are completely sympathetic. In The Enemy of the Rainbow (1946), a stick man tears a rainbow flag – the one vibrant object in a gray, barbed-wire-strewn panorama – to shreds.
What’s to be manufactured from this if the preliminary identification of the stick males with focus camp inmates is maintained? We’d see in these figures a double picture of the oppressed and the oppressor: the previous oppressor turned sufferer, the sufferer as perpetrator. It’s a sophisticated and discomforting picture, ‘partially tragic, partially grotesque’, because the artist put it in a letter of 1946.
Grosz doesn’t spare himself from criticism. Between 1947 and 1950 he produced a sequence of three self-portraits presenting himself as a stick man. The third of those, a big oil portray titled The Painter of the Gap II (1948–50), is included within the present. It’s an arrestingly bizarre picture: the artist is surrounded and nearly hidden by canvases, one in every of which he presents to the viewer whereas obtrusive out at us with a paintbrush gripped in his downturned mouth. The colors are lurid, kitsch even, as are the 2 incongruously cute mice which perch on the work. The latter are all penetrated by large holes (by the way, these photos precede Lucio Fontana’s slit canvases by one yr). The outlet minimize into the central canvas, which ought to reveal the physique of the artist, as an alternative exhibits a patch of blue sky. His head is penetrated by an identically formed aperture.
The curators argue that, in addition to commenting on the legacy of the battle, these work are a salvo towards the growing dominance of summary portray of the post-war years. Grosz was definitely not discreet about his disapproval of the Summary Expressionists, particularly the work of Pollock (he had been criticising abstraction because the mid Nineteen Twenties). In The Gray Man Dances (1949) the determine appears to not be dancing a lot as stamping on the snowy floor, which, because the curators level out, appears loads just like the then-fashionable motion portray. His lips are sewn shut, his cranium is smashed and he has boards nailed to his ears. This might properly be a protest towards the non-figurative portray being celebrated in his adopted house on the time.
However whereas this interpretation is convincing sufficient, it’s exhausting to see these works as simple celebrations of figuration. The artist in The Painter of Gap is brainless and his works are vacant, mere holes. Moreover, they make use of a sickly color palette borrowed from mass tradition. In different phrases, they’re a continuation of Grosz’s Dadaist anti-art, for all their finely honed approach. As such they’re akin to the post-war kitsch of avant-gardists equivalent to Magritte, Dix and Picabia. Lengthy seen as deplorable lapses in high quality, these artworks ought to as an alternative be understood as bitter assaults on the failure of the supposedly progressive aesthetics the artists had as soon as espoused. Removed from being apolitical or disengaged, these are Grosz’s very angriest work.
‘George Grosz: The Stick Males’ is at Das kleine Grosz Museum, Berlin till 30 October. It will likely be on the Hecksecker Museum of Artwork, Lengthy Island, from 11 Might–1 September 2024.