Art by George Grosz
Originally published in The Evergreen ReviewIssue 40 in 1966 and featured in Issue 107 in 2004.
Looking at the drawings in Ecce Homo today I am filled with the same excitement and unbounded admiration for the artist as I was in 1927 when I first saw his work. All through the years these expressions of despair, hate and disillusionment, as Grosz himself called them, have remained with me as if burned into my brain. I know of nothing to compare with them in our time, or in any other time. They are as naked and ugly, as beautiful and eloquent, as truth itself. Shortly after I received a copy of that first edition I began to draw and paint myself. The first thing I attempted was to copy the portrait on the cover - Mr. Homo himself - which I had assumed was a caricatural self-portrait of Grosz. Since I had never evinced the least ability to draw, this first successful effort gave me confidence to continue a pursuit which has given me as much, if not more, pleasure than writing.
Recently, reading Grosz' autobiography* which I missed when it first came out, I became just as excited as when I first saw his drawings and water colors. The similarities between his life and background in Germany and my own in a German-American neighborhood in Brooklyn impressed me. There was this difference, to be sure, that in my early days I had no burning desire to be an artist, or for that matter, anything. We who were born before the end of the century look back with nostalgia on that fin du siecle period which lasted well into the twentieth century. Most of the great figures of our time in the realms of art, science, and politics, had already been born, though the masses were only dimly acquainted with their work. I am thinking of men like Picasso, Stravinsky, Spengler, Chagall, Rabindranath Tagore, Romain Rolland, Barbusse, Kandinsky, as well as Lenin, Trotsky, Freud, and Einstein. (To say nothing of such popular idols as Max Linder and Charlie Chaplin).
*George Grosz, A Little Yes and a Big No, The Dial Press, N. Y., 1946.
Yes, the end of the nineteenth century witnessed the rise of some of the greatest figures in modern times. Only now are we beginning to reap the bitter fruits of their discoveries, their revolutionary ideas, their destruction and their creations.
It was a period without the comforts, gadgets, and technical developments of today. Lighting, plumbing, heating, transportation, communication, all were primitive by present standards. Yet there seemed to be an atmosphere of peace and contentment, even a gayety which we today no longer know. Before the great smash-up there had been only four wars that I can remember: the Spanish-American war, the Russo-Japanese war, the Boer war, and the Balkan wars. The ground was already giving way, of course, the workers were on the march, with Utopia as always just around the corner.
Looking at the sad, confused, ignoble picture of the world today, one wonders indeed what effect the great spirits in the realm of culture have had upon our behavior. The second World War, if not the first, demonstrated beyond question that the most cultured nations of the earth could behave even worse than the so-called barbarians. Grosz, whose faith in man had been shattered by the first war, put it thus: "The best thing for art is for it to be treated as a hobby, an incidental thing. For, after all, what do we artists, we insignificant little ants, have to say? We, who are nothing more than blown up frogs? Where is our influence? Where, our significance? Do we change the general picture in the slightest?"*
If this statement sounds too sweeping, think back over the course of history. The greatest of peoples, the most cultured, the most civilized, never ceased to make war, to massacre, torture, persecute their neighbors, creating at the same time great works of art, cathedrals, seats of learning, and so on. It all went hand in hand. Even America, the land of the free, was indoctrinated from the beginning with the idea that in time of peace one should prepare for war. And of late there is current the idea that one must fight for peace. "Peace, it's wonderful!" But when, how, where? More than ever it seems like a mirage. In the name of the man who came to bring peace on earth we have been slaughtering one another without letup for centuries - the Crusades, the religious wars, the Inquisition, pogroms, gas chambers, every atrocity, every iniquity imaginable.
In telling the story of his life, Grosz makes mention of the deep impression made upon him by "the alluring horror panorama paintings" which he saw as a child at fairs and rifle matches. He asks himself why these scenes of blood and murder should have taken such a hold upon him. "Was I specially selected to experience horror?" he asks. Even in school, aware of the sadistic behavior exhibited by teachers and students alike, he notes that "it was as if I had uncovered a profound law of brutality."
In 1916, stricken with a combination of brain fever and dysentery, he was sent to the rear and later given an honorable discharge, but with the understanding that he might be recalled to the front. It was in this period, living in Berlin, that he began the sketches which would later come to fruition in Ecce Homo and elsewhere. The description of these sketches, which he gives in his own words, is as brutal as the drawings themselves. In 1917 he is drafted again, found guilty of desertion and sentenced to be executed, then sent to the insane asylum from which he is discharged, again subject to recall. Can one wonder that he found no place in his work for "sweetness and light"? Is it any wonder that he was, as he admits, filled with an utter contempt for all mankind?
*These and other quotations by Grosz are all taken from his autobiography.
"War freed many an individual," he says, "from the environment he hated and the slavery of his everyday routine. This is one of the psychological causes or enigmas of war and that is why there is and always will be war."
It would be difficult to prove him wrong. Despite the vast economic changes since World War I, despite the improved conditions of the worker, despite all the comforts, improvements and tremendous possibilities open to us today, man is still a victim of his environment, a slave to ideas and ideologies, still preoccupied with ways and means to kill more effectively, to assert himself over those who disagree with him, to have his way at all costs, even if it means the annihilation of the race itself. The man who can lead us out of this morass is nowhere in sight. Not only has the artist failed, but so has the statesman, the priest, the educator, the scientist, the thinker. Now, if ever, we must lift ourselves by the boot-straps.
In that Gilded Age before the first war, which promises to continue for a century, life in America was more like that in Europe than it is today. We too had our beer gardens, our outdoor music halls, our excursion boats and picnics on the lawn, even our Saengerbunds and Turnverein. We had our Socialists too, then regarded with almost the same contempt and hatred as are the Communists today. (As a boy, in my uncle's beer saloon on Second Avenue, N. Y., I used to listen to my grandfather, who had fled Germany to escape military service, inveigh against the "boss tailors.") Soon I would be reading Jack London's fiery revolutionary speeches, for delivering which he would have been imprisoned today. Going to work I read Goethe, Heine, Schiller in the original, and when I descended the long flight of stairs at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge there on the sidewalk were piled up the latest issues of Simplicissimus, Jugend and Der Querschnitt, along with the German newspapers. The works of artists such as Nolde, Lovis Corinth, Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Erans Masereel were familiar to me as they were to Grosz, through reproductions. The etching by Anders Zorn of the famous actress, Tilla Durieux, hung on my wall opposite one of Strindberg. Nietzeche and Dostoyevsky had appeared on my horizon. Kropotkin too, and the great Russian dramatists, among them the beloved Maxim Gorky. Superficially it was the era of "Wine, Woman, and Song"; underneath there was turmoil and ferment. Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Jim Larkin, these were headline figures. Soon would come Dada, followed by Baba and Caca, by Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Cocteau, and other blazing comets.
Perhaps I do not have these names and events in strict chronological order. What matter? They were all there, if not on the scene then behind the scenes. Their presence was disturbing and arresting. Though toilets were now largely indoors instead of in the backyard, though gas light had replaced the kerosene lamp and one might wash in a porcelain tub instead of a tin washtub, though the streets were beginning to be paved and the horse-drawn trams were being discarded, the new century had not yet fully made itself felt. In many ways we were still living in the nineteenth century. We believed in Progress, Advancement, Enlightenment. One could still drink Rhine wines, Moselle, and Claret along with the choicest liqueurs, and if I remember right, the free lunch counters were still serving more delicious, palatable food than one can get today in an ordinary restaurant. At the same time we were getting stronger and stronger doses of Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Oriental philosophy, New Thought, Christian Science, and other intellectual and spiritual hors d'oeuvre. The publisher Knopf was already beginning to serve us much-needed translations of Europe's famous writers. The Haldeman-Julius chap books - at five cents apiece, was it? - were making the masses aware of good literature. John Cowper Powys was bringing culture to America through lectures in every town and hamlet of America, often for as little as ten cents a lecture.
W. E. Burghardt Dubois, bless his name, was already opening our eyes to the riches of African culture. Marcel Duchamp had not yet abandoned painting for chess, and would soon be exhibiting his famous toilet bowl as an expression of his contempt for bourgeois art. Chagall had already acquainted us with his roof-top violinists and his dreamy, topsy-turvy figures flying through rainbow colors. The six-day bicycle races still packed huge crowds at the old Madison Square Garden, as did Jim Londos, Strangler Lewis, and Earl Caddock. Alfred Stieglitz had opened his famous Studio on Fifth Avenue where the new trends in art were exhibited and discussed with intense interest. The theatre was also coming alive and drawing enthusiastic audiences in such playhouses as the Portmanteau Theater, the Neighborhood Playhouse, the Greenwich Village Theatre. The Settlements on Henry Street and elsewhere in Manhattan were inspiring centers of cultural activity. The lower East Side, with its foreign restaurants, cabarets and cellar cafes, was the most alive, the most interesting and the most fecund part of the city. The Café Royal on Second Avenue, where many famous columnists of the day gathered, was like a bit of old Europe. Here in the ghetto one could still hear the zither and the cymbalon. Hot jazz, or jazz hot, was still the offing. We weren' t jazzed up yet, nor even hopped up, but we sure were fucked up and ripe for the toboggan. Figures like Scott Fitzgerald and Harry Crosby would soon be startling the country with their playboy antics. Theodore Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie, a book which would stun the public by its realism and naturalism. Ben Hecht had probably begun his daily column, to be known in book form as A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago. As for Frank Harris, I had just made his acquaintance through that Greenwich Village bohemian, Guido Bruno. It was my privilege to have helped Frank Harris get in and out of his trousers at my father's tailor shop, while listening to his heavenly discourses on Jesus, Oscar Wilde, and Shakespeare.
I recount these souvenirs of my "anecdotal life" to indicate some of the similarities between life here and abroad in this formative period of Grosz' life. Life was unbearably dull or tremendously exciting, according to the milieu in which one found himself. While Oswald Spengler was preparing his monumental picture of doom, we on both sides of the Atlantic were masturbating in our dreams. The huge crack in the wall was visible only to a rare few. The House of Certain Death* was located not in Egypt but in the Western World.
*A novel by Albert Cossery: New Directions, N. Y., 1949.
In a way, Hieronymus Bosch prefigured everything which was to come, and is still to come, for the end is not yet. Bosch, an initiate, takes us out of and beyond history; Grosz, who called himself "a simple, ordinary man," merely indicts his time, his people, and the hypocrisy of man. There is nothing Surrealistic about Grosz' portraits; distorted, exaggerated as they are, we recognize the subjects for the everyday figures which they are. He simply removed the blinders with which we had been accustomed to viewing them. He saw them with X-ray eyes, penetrating not only the flesh but the mind and spirit as well. Most of us will still look upon them as the dread enemy they once were, but can we be certain today that we have nothing in common with them? Or is it that the genius has not yet been born to us who is capable of unmasking our spawn of brutes, misfits, and phonies of all sorts, all creeds, all ideologies?