Wednesday, August 4, 2010

George Grosz in America

I thought the war would never end. And perhaps it never did, either. George Grosz

George Grosz, The Wanderer, 1934

George Grosz was born Georg Groß in Berlin (1893), but changed his name in 1916 out of his hatred of Prussian militarism and a romantic enthusiasm for America. (His artist friend and collaborator Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to John Heartfield at the same time and for the same reasons).  Next to Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, Grosz was to become one of the most prominent artists of the Weimar Republic. I have illustrated this post with some of Grosz' later works.

George Grosz, Retreat (Rückzug), 1946

By 1933 Grosz's reputation as a political activist and deflator of German greatness was no secret. Menacing portents and premonitions of disaster began to haunt him. A studio assistant appeared in a brown shirt one day and warned him to be careful; a threatening note calling him a Jew was found beside his easel. A nightmare he recounted in his autobiography ended with a friend shouting at him "Why don't you go to America?" When in the spring of 1932 a cable arrived from the Art Students League in New York, inviting him to teach there during the summer, he accepted immediately. 

 George Grosz, The Painter of the Hole II, 1950

After a short return to Germany, where he was advised that his apartment and studio had been searched by the Gestapo, who were looking for him, Grosz emigrated to New York in January 1933. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1938, and made his home in Bayside, New York. Meanwhile, Grosz was among the defamed artists whose works had been included in two Schandausstellungen (abomination exhibitions) in Mannheim and Stuttgart in 1933. 

 George Grosz, Remembering (Self-Portrait), 1936

The polemical articles about modern art, "art on the edge of insanity" as the official Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter called it, also regularly included Grosz. A portrait of the poet Max Hermann-Neisse, later to appear in the exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), was singled out for the "degenerate loathsomeness of the subject". A total of 285 of Grosz's works were removed from German museums and either burnt or sold abroad.

 George Grosz, God of War, 1940

The heirs of George Grosz filed suit in New York in 2009 against the Museum of Modern Art for refusing to return three artworks created by Grosz and left behind by him when he fled Germany in 1933. The artworks, including a portrait of the poet Max Herrmann-Neisse were left behind with his Galerist Alfred Flechtheim. Flechtheim died 1937 in London, having also been exiled from Germany. Flechtheim's wife, Betty, stayed on in Germany not having raised the necessary funds to pay Jewish taxes in order to obtain permission to leave. 

 Georg Grosz, The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse, 1927

Betty Flechtheim eventually committed suicide in 1941 after having been given notice that she would be sent to a concentration camp. Shortly after Flechtheim's death, Charlotte Weidler, an art dealer and curator for the Carnegie Institute, claimed she had "inherited" paintings from him including the Max Herrmann-Neisse painting. However, the latter belonged to George Grosz who had never given up its ownership. After WWII, in 1949 Weidler brought the painting to New York where she sold it to MoMA in 1952. 

George Grosz, Myself and the Barroom Mirrror, 1937

At the time, George Grosz was living in New York but was not informed of the sale. He continued to exhibit regularly, opened a private art school at his home and taught at the Art Students League intermittently until 1955. In 1946 Grosz had published his autobiography, A Little Yes and a Big No. There he wrote: "A great deal that had become frozen within me in Germany melted here in America and I rediscovered my old yearning for painting. I carefully and deliberately destroyed a part of my past."  

 George Grosz, Female Nude in the Dunes of Cape Cod, 1938

In a letter sent to John Heartfield in 1946, Grosz was notably low key, writing that his European fame now ultimately boiled down to "a card-box container full of newspaper clippings - nothing more". Grosz talked of his having given art lectures at Columbia University and at other institutions, and of doing some illustrations which had brought him "a little fame." But this was, he observed sadly, "not enough to make a living from."

 Anom., George Grosz painting "Cain or Hitler in Hell", New York, 1944

Grosz returned to Germany permanently in 1958, somewhat disillusioned with his American interlude. He was appreciated in America primarily as a satirist, and the work from the period after the First World War was perceived as his best. Grosz was unable to understand the American psyche to the degree that he had the German, and he returned to Berlin in an attempt to regain the momentum he had lost. Six weeks later, at Savigny Platz 5, Grosz died toppling down a flight of stairs after a boozy night out drinking.


  1. The Wanderer is 1943, not 1934

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