The Berlin of George Grosz (Royal Academy, till 8 June)
Who was George Grosz? Frank Whit- ford asks the question in the catalogue of the current exhibition of Grosz's drawings, watercolours and prints from 1912 to 1930 at the Royal Academy. And Grosz himself sometimes seemed far from sure. In 1915, When he was 22, he wrote that he had three 'imaginary pseudonyms': '1. Grosz. 2. Count Ehrenfried, the nonchalant aristocrat with manicured fingernails intent only on culti- vating himself. 3. The physician Dr William King Thomas who provides the more American, practical, materialistic balance Within the host figure of Grosz himself.' The visitor to this exhibition might also Wonder what kind of artist Grosz was. Should he be thought of as a caricaturist, a satirist, a propagandist? Was he a mod- ernist, or some more traditional type of draughtsman? Are these sordid, violent, delirious, savage and whirling scenes of Berlin streets and cafés some kind of documentary realism, or are they actually Gene Grosz's Rogues at the Bar', c. 1922 a private nightmare of the artist's?
His own words often suggest the latter. 'I do not feel related to this mishmash of a people,' he wrote of his fellow Germans. 'What do I see. .. only unkempt, fat, deformed, incredibly ugly men and (above all) women, degenerate creatures.' This human menagerie we see in watercolours such as 'Beauty, I Wish to Praise Thee', 'German Wine and Song' or 'Sunny Coun- try of 1919-20': men with the faces of pigs — sometimes literally — women like sows.
But in the Twenties, it seems, the swinish bourgeois brutes, sordidly sensuous whores and crippled war veterans who populate the world of Grosz were recognised as vivid images of contemporary Berliners. Grosz's drawings, wrote Hannah Arendt, 'seemed to us not satires but realistic reportage: we knew these types; they were all around us'.
Grosz's imagination had turned to death, violent sexuality, squalor and corruption even in the palmy days before the war. The café 'Verlorenenes Gluck' (the Lost Happi- ness Café) of 1912 shows a figure huddled in the doorway of some cheap bar; in Das Ende des Weges' (The End of the Road), an entire family has committed suicide, the woman hanging naked, her face horribly blackened, from a coat .hook on the wall.
It was the first world war, however, understandably enough, that fuelled Grosz's steadily rising disgust with humani- ty. By 1916, that ferociously exacerbated misanthropy is already visible in a drawing such as Traum Fantasie' (Dream Fantasia), with its skull-faced burgers and half-naked woman flitting by, her buttocks emphatical- ly displayed (female bottoms were of espe- cial interest to Grosz, who frequently photographed his wife nude from behind).
Grosz seems to have had a fierce desire to unmask, to reveal the corruption behind the façade of respectability. In 'Gegen- satze' (Contrasts) of 1917, the skulls of two middle-class men gathered in a café appear beneath the skin, as if Grosz had X-ray vision. The genitalia of the male figures in `Traum Fantasie' are revealed beneath their trousers: lust made visible. As the cat- alogue points out, in a self portrait his pen is like a scalpel. He himself talked of 'razor-sharp' line. His drawings increasingly look as if they were executed with an implement sharp enough to cut.
As the war drew to a close, and the chaotic aftermath began, Grosz's drawings grew frenzied. In 'Berlin — Friedrich- strasse, Menschen im Cafe' and 'Fahrendes Volk' (Travelling People) a population of cadaverous beggars, gross and bestial men, and naked women inhabit a city of frag- mented, jagged planes in which buildings shoot up diagonally like rockets taking off. This was no doubt Grosz's own internal world. In 'Selbstportrat (Fiir Charlie Chap- lin)', he is creating it, standing in the mid- dle of a welter of splintered shop-signs, skulls and naked limbs, his own genitals showing through his trousers, adding the finishing touches to a pair of buttocks. But in those years everyday reality actually was a Walpurgisnacht of jagged fragments — violent clashes between right and left, insane inflation, grotesque discrepancies between rich and poor. There was a match between inner and outer landscape.
Grosz threw himself into the fight. For a while he was a fanatical communist. 'My own art,' he remembered, 'would be my rifle, my sword; all brushes and pens not dedicated to the great fight for freedom would be no more than empty straws.' Grosz was also at the centre of the Berlin Dada movement, expressing aggressive contempt for all conventions (he was known in those circles as 'propagandada'). At one Dadaist event, Grosz appeared on stage, executed an obscene tap-dance, shouted 'Kunst ist Scheisse!' (art is shit), and pretended to urinate on a painting by Lovis Corinth. If the word Dada meant anything at all, he wrote later, it meant 'seething discontent, dissatisfaction and cynicism' — a concise description of the mood of his own work of that period.
But there was always an ambivalence in the savage satire, and the fiery modernism. Although Grosz borrowed the fractured, zig-zagging lines of Futurism and Cubism, it is something much more traditional, the brutish, caricatured faces that give his work its power. His friend Berthold Brecht put his finger on another paradox — the bloat- ed, repulsive upper classes were the people he loved to draw, the starving proletariat are much weaker, more sentient figures in his art.
In fact, the Dadaist, Marxist Grosz lasted only a few years. His communism did not survive a visit to the Soviet Union in 1922. As the Twenties wore on, his modernism too became less evident, and he was revealed more and more as a something unexpected — a master cartoonist. There are many drawings in this show reminiscent of Ronald Searle — who must have been influenced by Grosz — 'Inflation' of 1923 is especially close. At moments the name of H.E. Bateman even comes to mind. And Grosz, who later made it his ambition to become an American illustrator, would not have objected to either comparison.
As the Twenties wore on, his fierce indignation drained away and as it did so the work became softer and less powerful. Watercolours such as 'Street in Berlin' of c. 1925 or `Queen Bar', 1927, are almost gen- tle. Even when we meet the pig-faced man and his naked floozie again, as in 'Circe', 1927, the impact is muffled by washes of fuzzy watercolour.
In 1932, Grosz emigrated to America. And there he discovered his satirical impulse had ebbed entirely away. 'I was suddenly sick and tired of satirical cartoons and pulling faces. . . I had simply lost all interest in human weaknesses and individu- al foibles. All men now seemed as alike as two peas.'
This show is of work on paper only, so it lacks the oils that were Grosz's most impor- tant achievement. But it strongly suggests that it was the wild, demented fury of his youth that made Grosz an important artist. And that lasted for only a few short years.