A graphic journalist cleverly masquerading as an artist, George Grosz reported on German society during a career that spanned both world wars. Equally persecuted and renowned for his accuracy, Grosz shocked Germany by using his art as a weapon with which to fight, persuade, and wound.
He was born Georg Ehrenfried Gross on July 26, 1893, in Berlin, the only son of Prussian Lutherans Karl and Marie Gross. George was only six years old when his father, who worked as an innkeeper, died. Following the death of Karl Gross, the family moved from Stolp back to Berlin where Marie Gross found work as a blouse-maker, and later as a housekeeper for the officers’ mess of the Fürst Blücher Husaren.
Early artistic influences instilled Grosz with a love of images whose merit depended solely on shock rather than artistic worth. His hunger for sensationalism was fed early on by the weekly magazines that arrived at his father’s inn. His favorite, the Liepziger Illustrierte, featured extensive depictions of the Russo-Japanese War and the Boer War, as well as the exploits of German colonialists in Africa.
Later on, Grosz’s interest was piqued by graphic cycloramas and horror shows at the city fair, involving scenes of rape, murder, arson, and chaotic mobs, which would eventually impel him to take up art as a career. In his own words, “…something was stimulated in me here that surfaced again later, when I first saw futurist painting. It is the sense for depicting contemporary life and the realities of the world.”
His first art teacher, Herr Grot, took Grosz under his tutelage after reading a cartoon authored by Grosz in which a scientist is eaten by the whale he is studying, and is subsequently passed through the whale’s digestive system before being expelled with its feces. It was around this time that the 11 year old Grosz gave up his dream of becoming a professional cyclist to devote more time to his own art. He took up art as his career rather by default, when at age 14 he was expelled from his strict Prussian school for slapping a teacher.
Grosz subsequently entered the Königliche Kunstakademie in Dresden, where he honed his skill in draftsmanship. His favorite artist was Eduard Grützner, who was known for his vivid paintings of war and cavalry. Grosz greatly admired Grützner and would paint pictures imitating his style, often sending them to magazines hoping his pictures would be published.
Grosz also appreciated the modern artists of the day, and took pleasure in annoying his teachers by bringing books on Nolde and Van Gogh with him to class. Later, Grosz came to admire the artists of the Simplicissimus movement. This admiration led Grosz to believe his own drawings were far too ornamental and decorative to represent reality. Realising he could learn nothing more at the Academy, Grosz began to study on his own, using nature as his teacher. He adapted the single line countouring—known as Linienstil—technique of the Simplicissimus, and also began using a reed pen as they did.
By this time, Grosz’s art had moved more toward the caricatures he is now known for, which he kept sending to magazines with the hope of being published. In 1910 at age 17, Grosz had his first drawing accepted by Ulk, a weekly satirical publication of the Berliner Tageblatt, one of Germany’s leading papers.
Concurrently, Grosz began to develop the disgust with art that would guide his career—in addition to a loathing of the pseudo-philosophy that was prevalent among his under-educated but knowledge-hungry contemporaries. After graduating from the Academy in Dresden, Grosz moved to Berlin in 1912, attending the Kunstgewerbeschule, where he would study intermittently during the next four years. In his spare time, Grosz attended bicycle races, went to the circus, and drank in the lowest class pubs he could find. As biographer Hans Hess describes it, Grosz was attracted by “…any popular expression of life—vulgar, but honest and real.”
Consequently, Grosz frequented beer palaces and Stehbierhallen (corner pubs) alike. He enjoyed venturing to the outskirts of the city, where he would sketch half-completed buildings, railway crossings, garbage heaps, and allotments. The centre of the artistic world in Berlin was undoubtedly the Café des Westens coffeehouse. Grosz would diligently sketch passerby from the café window, going incognito in a disguise consisting of a checkered jacket, and a black cane with a skull for a handle, with his face powdered pure white and his lips painted bright red.
The aggressiveness, energy, and size of Berlin inspired Grosz, and he progressed quickly there. It was at this time that Grosz began to develop his own distinct style of art, leaving behind the Linienstil.
At the urging of his close friend Erich Fiedler, Grosz left Berlin for Paris in 1913, where he studied at Atelier of Colarossi. Colarossi taught only the five minute sketch, an exercise perfectly suited to Grosz. Grosz enjoyed the challenge of having only five minutes to capture the essence of his subject, and used the sketches as an opportunity to hone in on the subtle idiosyncrasies of each subject. As Hess explains it, Grosz was amused by and attracted to freakish behaviour “…not because he thought it unusual but on the contrary, because he thought that everybody was a freak of sorts. He collected absurdities as some people collect butterflies.”
Favourite subjects of Grosz’s included mob scenes, and domestic violence—particularly the Lustmorden in which men brutally murdered theirs wives or random prostitutes. He was also a gifted portrait artist, as demonstrated by his rendition of one of his friend’s profiles in urine on the wall of the Café des Westens.
Despite being a vociferous opponent of the war, Grosz nonetheless enlisted in the German army in 1914, an act common among artists and intellectuals at the time. He nearly experienced battle on the Western Front, but was hospitalized with a serious sinus infection and subsequently discharged from service.
He spent the summer of 1915 back in Berlin, where he met a man who would play an integral role in the course of his career. In the studio of expressionist artist Ludwig Meidner, there was a gathering held at which many of Berlin’s young artists, writers and intellectuals were in attendance. Then only 19 years old, Wieland Herzfelde was one of them.
Their conversation centred around was what one of the young artists present should do with his draft order from the German army, which was met by strongly pacifist sentiments. Many urged the young man to resist reporting for duty at all, since they believed the war was likely to end soon. In the midst of this came a polite voice belonging to a stranger clad in immaculate business attire. He informed those in attendance that as a Dutch businessman, he had no desire to see the war end because he personally stood to make millions from it. Meidner’s guests were initially silent, before speaking up in astonished protest.
The businessman was, of course, George Grosz, in an early demonstration of his unparalleled ability to astound. Years later, Herzfelde would comment that Grosz affected people “…like a cold shower: sobering in a shocking way and uncommonly invigorating.”
The businessman persona exemplified elements of German society that Grosz particularly loathed. Those who schemed and profited during the war, and later those who vehemently supported German militarism at the expense of the Weimar democracy, infuriated Grosz and convinced him that all human beings were intrinsically corrupt.
As a child out in the schoolyard, Grosz had once been pushed by a spiteful classmate face first onto the mud and the sandwich that he had been eating at the time. This expression of deliberate and unprovoked cruelty left an indelible mark on Grosz, and he would later recount the event in his autobiography as an example of “ein tiefes Gesetz der Brutalität”, a profound law of brutality. This law, he believed was a universal governing force of human behaviour. Humankind was physically ugly and spiritually void, according to Grosz, a view which he summarized in a letter to Robert Bell in 1916 when he wrote: “I saw a thousand ugly men and many even uglier women. I was sorry I did not have a dog to talk to.”
In 1916, Georg Gross officially Americanized his name to George Grosz. Due to numerous productive collaborations with Wieland Herzfelde and his brother John Heartfield, this year brought much in the way of artistic accomplishment. In addition, Grosz and his contemporaries were extremely active in attempting to sabotage the German war effort, for example, by sending packages to soldiers containing items sure to infuriate them, such as dress shirts, ties, or a request for tea, or in Heartfield’s case—since he was employed as a mail carrier—dropping all of the mail into the storm sewers to create disenchantment with the war among the families who received no mail. They would also send postcards to the soliders at the front, featuring hidden messages composed of cut-up pictures and words in order to pass inspection by censors. This distinctive art form was later utilized by the Dadaist art movement.
Intending to begin publication of an anti-war journal, Wieland Herzfeld illegally purchased the defunct Neue Jugend, retaining the name of its previous publisher, Heinz Barger, on the masthead in order to avoid suspicion. Four issues were published in 1916, all of which included at least one contribution from Grosz. By the fifth issue, Herzfelde had been drafted into the army, and the reins of the magazine were passed onto his brother. By this time, as a result of a disagreement with Heinz Barger, Wieland Herzfelde’s name appeared on the masthead and the magazine bore the mark of the Malik Verlag. This was to be one of its last issues, before being banned for the duration of the war. Neue Jugend reappeared as a weekly newsletter in May of 1917, publishing two issues before being banned again in June.
1917 also saw the publication of two Grosz portfolios under the Malik Verlag imprint, the Erste George Grosz Mappe in the spring, followed by the Kleine Grosz Mappe in the fall. Both contained pictures and poems, with the first portfolio centered on the romance and wildness of American culture, and the second being a stark portrayal of man’s beastly nature. Grosz also participated with John Heartfield in developing a film which was supposed to be a cartoon spoof about Americans landing in France to fight the Germans. Unfortunately, the film did not pass muster with the film company since it depicted German soldiers so negatively.
On Janary 4th, 1917, Grosz was recalled for military service and readmitted to the hospital with a sinus infection almost immediately. While in the hospital, Grosz suffered a mental breakdown and attacked an orderly, attempted to desert, and was nearly sentenced to death. It was the intervention of Count Harry Kessler, a wealthy patron of the arts, and Wieland Herzefeld’s unconfirmed source of capital for his publishing business, that saved Grosz’s life.
Instead of a visit with the firing squad, Grosz spent two months in an insane asylum at Görden bei Brandenburg with what was described as “insanity brought on by the war”. Some have speculated that Grosz’s insanity was merely feigned as an excuse to secure his release from the army, while others believe that Grosz’s unique ability to recreate in his mind the horror and graphic details of the war had devastated him mentally. Regardless, by May 1917 Grosz returned to Berlin having been declared permanently unfit for service.
Grosz did not become a Dadaist after the war—since Dadaism is a state of mind, it had been a part of Grosz long before the movement itself was introduced to the Germans via Richard Huelsenbeck. Upon meeting George Grosz in the spring of 1917, Huelsenbeck found “…a man who possessed both the attitude and the ability to attack German society. In Huelsenbeck, Grosz found a man whose arrogance and scorn for all things German struck a responsive chord.”
As a dadaist, Grosz ensured that his contempt for German society was well known. Adapting the dress of a Prussian general, Grosz would patrol the streets of Berlin giving orders, slapping faces, and calling people various derogatory names. He took dadaist performance art to a new level in February 1917, when he accompanied Huelsenbeck to the J.B. Neumann Gallery in Berlin, and performed a tap dance which involved Grosz declaring “Kunst ist Scheisse!” while pretending to urinate on a painting by Lovis Corinth. Grosz also was instrumental in founding the November Group, an artistic organization calling for a German revolution. By 1919, however, the November Group had reverted to a mere exhibition society that lasted until the end of the Weimar era.
Along with Heartfield and Herzfelde, Grosz joined the German Communist Party (KPD) on December 31, 1918. Grosz explained many times during his life that when he joined the KPD, he did not initially do it out of love for or faith in the proletariat, but because he believed they shared a common enemy. Grosz became known as the leading artist of the KPD, due to his political cartoons of the time which ridiculed the Weimar government. Grosz took part in the compilation of a plethora of anti-war journals published by Herzefelde—a result of each successive journal being banned soon after its first issues was published, thus necessitating a name change. This was a difficult business to conduct, as Wieland Herzfelde and John Heartfield were both arrested in 1919, while Grosz had to hide at his fiancée’s apartment in order to evade the police. These obstacles, said Grosz, only deepened his commitment to the Spartacist cause.
In 1920, Grosz married his fiancée, Eva Louise Peter, and worked on his first play, George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, as the costume designer. He would continue to work designing for the theatre until 1930. The following year saw the publication of his portfolio Gott Mit Uns, and his subsequent trial and conviction for attacking the Reichswehr in it. With John Heartfield, Grosz spearheaded the development of the KPD’s own satirical journal, Der Knüppel, which was first published in 1923. Grosz would be a regular contributor to the magazine until 1927.
In 1922, he visited Soviet Russia with Martin Andersen Nexö to gather material for a book they were planning to publish together. When faced with the rampant poverty and unconvincing propaganda of communism in action, Grosz’s strong communist beliefs did not return to Germany fully intact. During the next few years, as Grosz grew tired of communism, the demands for scathing political cartoons from the KPD remained just as strong.
Grosz resigned from the Communist Party in 1923, although he would still contribute his artwork to their cause for years to come. That same year he published a new portfolio, Ecce Homo, which got him charged and fined for publishing obscene drawings in 1924. He and his publishers were each fined 6000 Reichsmarks, while unsold copies of the book were seized and the plates of the drawings destroyed.
Having alienated the right wing with his so-called pornographic drawings, Grosz also found that he had fallen out of favour with the communists. Apparently, the pomposity and self-indulgence at the upper levels of the KPD had provoked Grosz into turning his satirical eye on the party, thus earning their disapproval. By 1925, Grosz’s relationship with John Heartfield and Malik Verlag had also soured to some extent over an argument about financial issues.
In what had become a predictable pattern, Grosz’s 1928 portfolio, Hintergrund, got Grosz charged with blasphemy and embroiled him in a three year ordeal. Since some of his pictures had linked the church to the German army, Grosz was charged under paragraph 166 of the 1871 Criminal Code which protected the church from attack. After being acquitted in 1929 and then reacquitted in 1931, it was decided by the Supreme Court that the drawings should be confiscated and the casts and blocks destroyed.
The following year, Grosz fulfilled his lifetime dream by visiting America as a guest lecturer at the Art Students League in New York City. He returned to Berlin in October of 1932, having decided to immigrate permanently to the United States. Grosz’s anti-Nazi caricatures had been so effective that the Nazis made a point of going after him in the months prior to his emigration. In one incident, Grosz only narrowly escaped arrest when his studio was invaded by a group of brownshirts. Clad in work clothes and a tattered apron, Grosz convinced them that he was only the janitor, and was fortunately left alone. On January 12, 1933, Grosz left for America with his wife and sons Peter and Martin in tow, only 18 days before Hitler became chancellor. Following the burning of the Reichstag, as a Communist, Grosz’s apartment and studio were both ransacked, and his German citizenship was revoked.
In America, Grosz started an art school with Maurice Sterne in New York. In 1938, Grosz became an American citizen, and continued to publish anti-fascist drawings motivated by what was happening in his home country. By the end of the war, Grosz had become disillusioned with his life in America, teaching art to “society girls”; meanwhile his own art showed that he had been deeply upset by the Americans’ use of the atomic bomb. Grosz delayed his return to Germany as long as possible, since it meant giving up the American image that he prized so greatly. Grosz finally returned to Berlin in 1959.
During the week after his return, while in a small West Berlin inn with Herzefelde and others, Grosz began loudly praising Hitler. While anyone unacquainted with him would have assumed Grosz was a Nazi, this was really his way of exposing the facade of a post-war Germany in which nobody but Hitler seemed to have been a Nazi.
On the night of July 5th, Grosz went out drinking with friends and collapsed in the front foyer of his apartment complex. The leading artist of the Weimar era was found the next morning by the newspaper delivery woman, and died as a result of choking on his own vomit as she and several other street workers tried to move him.