Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: Satires on the system

Tim Sanders

Bloated fat cats walk past desperate beggars, oblivious, absorbed by the pursuit of their own pleasures. Smug politicians, corrupt, out of touch and ugly, unaware or unconcerned about the gaping chasm which separates rich from poor. These visions of a violent divided society seem to encapsulate contemporary British society. In fact they were created more than 70 years ago by the German artist George Grosz.

The Royal Academy of Arts is hosting a stunning exhibition of Grosz's watercolours, prints and drawings, and the timing is faultless, though there is a certain irony in the fact that the most establishment institution of the art world is putting on an exhibition of one of the century's most iconoclastic and anti-establishment artists.

Grosz was a political artist working in a way which is hard for us to conceive today when anything like political art is seen as embarrassingly unfashionable and excruciatingly un-postmodern. This was not the case in Berlin in the 1920s. George Grosz was very much a product of his time and the maelstrom of the Weimar Republic threw up many contemporaries, though few equals to Grosz. The heated political atmosphere of the time gave rise to the Dadaist and Surrealist movements which were openly revolutionary in their outlook (The Surrealist Manifesto was later co-written by Trotsky and Andre Breton). Dada was influenced by the Constructivists in Russia and the Italian Futurists and was violently opposed to the existing order. In this context Grosz was happy to refer to his work as propaganda, his calling card acknowledged this influence, carrying the title chief of 'propaganda'.

Grosz arrived in Berlin at the end of the First World War after having twice been discharged from the army on medical grounds. He had in fact suffered a complete mental breakdown as a result of the horrors he had witnessed in the trenches and he was only able to save his sanity by pouring out merciless satires on the system which had caused such atrocious suffering.

Like many of his contemporaries Grosz joined the Communist Party and devoted all his artistic energy to the furtherance of the revolutionary cause. He believed fervently that art should be a 'weapon in the hands of the proletariat'.

The fact that this period was undoubtedly the most creative period of Grosz's career does not sit very comfortably with the prejudices of most art critics. It has caused some difficulties for reviewers in the 'quality press', who seem to have arrived at the consensus that Grosz was fundamentally a nasty misanthrope who happened to find a convenient vehicle for his dislike of humanity in the revolutionary upheavals of the period. This is a gross distortion of the truth.

Despite the parallels that can be drawn between today's situation and that of the Weimar Republic, it is hard for us to imagine the scale of the changes which were taking place. Revolution had swept across the whole of Europe, everything was up for grabs and nothing was safe from the contempt and ridicule of Grosz and his friends. Not surprisingly the victims of this torrent of abuse from the Dadaists were furious and their reaction was extreme. In one Dada show Grosz exhibited a tailor's dummy dressed in an army uniform and topped off with a pig's head. This was to give Grosz the first of many unpleasant encounters with the German state, and he was lucky to escape only with a fine.

One of the favourite targets of the Dadaists was the art establishment, which was thoroughly staid. The Dadaists frequently staged what might today be called 'happenings' in which they insulted their audiences, staged races between typewriters and sewing machines, recited nonsense poems and held swearing competitions, to the bafflement and confusion of the critics present. On one of these occasions a group of invited critics were kept waiting, staring at an unopened theatre curtain. When it was finally opened they were confronted by a room full of critics who had also been kept waiting staring at the other side. In the words of the poet Richard Huelseubeck, the aim of Dada was to smash the cultural ideology of the German state using 'all the instruments of satire, bluff, irony and finally violence'.

Many of the techniques which were employed by these artists developed as a direct result of their political nature, for instance photomontage, the cutting together of images and text which Grosz's friend and collaborator, John Heartfield, used to such devastating effect. This came from Grosz and Heartfield's practice of sending anti-war postcards to soldiers at the front ­ they were made up of words and images jumbled together to produce a message which would not have got past the censor if they had been written down. It is ironic that this technique, politically and artistically revolutionary in origin, has become such a mainstay of that most capitalist of institutions, the advertising industry. That such a fate did not befall Grosz's work is testimony to the uncompromising power of his output, particularly that which is on show at this exhibition.

In the wake of the German Revolution of November 1918 many artists were drawn into political activity. Many of these became members of the November Group whose radical proposals included total reorganisation of museums and art galleries, the transformation of architecture and public buildings and a complete overhaul of art education. Sadly the organisation's actions did not match the proclamations of their manifesto ­ internal tensions began to appear and an opposition group began to coalesce around the artists from the revolutionary wing of Dada, including George Grosz, Otto Dix, Hannah Hoch and others.

In 1921 the group which became known as the Red Group of Artists published an open letter to the November Group, which accused it of having abandoned its revolutionary aims. The letter ended with a rousing appeal to artists to commit themselves to the workers' revolution and devote all their skills, talent and energy to that end. Grosz's revolutionary commitment during this period is beyond doubt, and this is clear from his action and from his work.

But this political commitment began to fade in the mid-1920s. Grosz was invited to the Soviet Union and met Lenin, but the chaos, famine and growing bureaucratisation left him unimpressed with the young workers' state and its ailing leader. In 1923 he stopped paying his party subs. He continued to work for party publications, but much of the fire of his earlier work had gone. Instead of the hard black, almost razor slash lines of The Face of the Ruling Class (1921) he was using more pencil and his drawings were beginning to take on a softer, more naturalistic appearance.

The emergence of this gentler style in Grosz almost exactly paralleled the decline of the CP as a revolutionary organisation. The party which Grosz had joined in 1919 no longer existed in its old form. In its place an increasingly authoritarian bureaucracy was gaining strength. By 1925 the party had become extremely centralised under its new leader, Ernst Thälmann, and artists were coming under ever greater scrutiny. Typical of this new attitude was a resolution adopted by the agitprop section of the tenth party congress in 1925 which criticised Grosz's drawing for being a 'merely anarchistic critique of the decomposition of bourgeois society, without embodying our communist critique and ideology'.

There were clearly not enough heroic workers looking to the future with a steely gaze, but this type of positiveness had never been Grosz's strength. He described what he saw ­ the ugliness of his contemporary surroundings. Kurt Tucholsky, a left wing contemporary, said that he knew nobody who had so completely grasped the modern face of the holders of power 'right down to the last claret-coloured broken vein'. But Grosz was both revolted by his subject and at the same time drawn to it. His frequenting of the sleazy haunts of the bourgeoisie could be put down to 'research' but he was clearly a bit of a Bollinger Bolshie. His friend Bertolt Brecht put it like this:

'What the bourgeoisie hold against proletarians is their bad complexion. I fancy that what made you, George Grosz, an enemy of the bourgeois, was their physiognomy... I don't believe, Grosz, that overwhelming compassion for the exploited or anger against the exploiter one day filled you with an irresistible desire to get something about this down on paper. I think drawing was something you enjoyed, and people's physiognomies so [gave] many pretexts for it. I imagine you becoming aware one day of a sudden overwhelming love for a particular type of face as a marvellous opportunity for you to amuse yourself. It was the Face of the Ruling Class...the type you adore as subject matter you are bound to detest as a member of the public. Politically you regard the bourgeoisie as your enemy not because you are a proletarian but because you are an artist.'

Grosz's outlook became increasingly pessimistic as the realistic possibility of revolution under the leadership of the CP receded and the terrifying possibility of a Nazi government came ever closer.

In 1932 he was offered a teaching post in the US, a country which he had always adored. He emigrated on 12 January 1933, just 18 days before Hitler became chancellor, and Grosz was put at the top of a list of 'degenerate artists...who worked in a manner which was hostile to Germany' ­ in effect a virtual death warrant.

In America Grosz tried hard to become an American illustrator, and generally fit in. But his work declined and he concentrated mostly on making unremarkable landscapes. However, towards the end of his life he produced a series of haunting apocalyptic paintings known as the stick men, and one particularly disturbing painting called The Painter of the Hole which depicts an emaciated figure in a devastated landscape staring at an empty, torn canvas. The artist, Grosz explained, 'believed once in a picture, but now there is only a hole without meaning, without anything...nothingness.'

After the war Grosz did not return to Germany at first. However, when he did in 1959 it was to be his last visit. On 5 July he spent the evening drinking and joking with friends in a fashionable cafe. He returned to his flat, but collapsed in the hallway, where he was found next morning by a newspaper woman. She called some workers from the street, but he died as they tried to move him. It could have been a scene from one of his own drawings.

The Berlin of George Grosz is at the Royal Academy, London, until 8 June

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page