George Grosz - ensom kamp mot historien

Hans Rustad

George Grosz og mange andre kunst­nere og intel­lek­tu­elle tapte kam­pen mot nazis­men. De mis­tet lan­det sitt. De satt ikke og ven­tet på Nor­man­die. Mange begikk selvmord.

En kunst­ner er avhen­gig av sitt miljø. Grosz kunne male med brodd mens han lever i Tysk­land. Når han kom­mer til USA blir bare tra­ge­dien igjen. Imens strøm­mer de dår­lige nyhe­tene på. Avstan­den - og den frie luf­ten i Man­hat­ten - gjør at han ser hva som skjer. Han for­sø­ker å male det, det blir over­dyn­get: det er for enormt å skulle presse det som skjer inn i et bilde.

Kain, eller, Hit­ler i hel­vete. (1944) (pri­vat eie)

George Grosz. Cain, or, Hit­ler in Hell. 1944. Oil on can­vas. 99 x 124.5 cm. Pri­vate collection

Til­fel­let Grosz illust­rer Tysk­lands tra­ge­die. Den for­tel­ler også noe om tap av iden­ti­tet. Det skjedde som resul­tat av poli­tisk kamp: det hadde ikke behøvd å gå sliik, men mot­kref­tene var for svake og for­sto for sent.

Bil­dene Grosz malte i USA har fått liten opp­merk­som­het. Nå åpner en utstil­ling i New York ute­luk­kende viet denne perio­den som tross alt var 27 år. Grosz var begeist­ret for New York, slik mange tyske kunst­nere var. Like­vel var de stran­det som fisk. Noe av ner­ven mang­let. Han rakk å vende til­bake til Tysk­land, i 1959, rett før han døde og kunne med for­bau­selse regist­rere at Ber­lin var påvir­ket av det amerikanske.

First Major George Grosz Exhi­bition in the U.S. Dedi­cated Exclu­sively to His Years in Exile

NEW YORK, NY.- David Nolan Gallery will pre­sent the first major George Grosz exhi­bition in the Uni­ted Sta­tes dedi­cated exclu­sively to his years in Exile. Over 50 works on view – pain­tings, water­co­lors, dra­wings and col­lage allow for a reassess­ment of this pivo­tal figure of 20th Cen­tury art.

For 27 years, more than half of his arti­s­ti­cally pro­duc­tive life, George Grosz lived and wor­ked in the Uni­ted Sta­tes. The fact that it is only now, 50 years after his death, that a first com­pre­hen­sive exhi­bition is being dedi­cated to this impor­tant period speaks volu­mes of the hel­plessness that has hit­herto cha­rac­te­rized the art world!s reac­tion to the com­plex and con­tra­dic­tory cha­rac­ter of Grosz!s work. One widely held opi­nion sta­tes that Grosz lost his much-admired audacity upon immi­gra­ting to New York; that he mira­cu­lously tur­ned apo­li­ti­cal during the crossing abo­ard the “Stutt­gart” in January 1933, while Nazi hench­men were ran­sack­ing his stu­dio in Ber­lin. Whate­ver Grosz would paint, draw, or say over the course of following quar­ter of a cen­tury – it was always over­s­ha­dowed by his socially cri­ti­cal, sati­ri­cal work of his Wei­mar Years. Few artists have visu­ally shaped an era as George Grosz did with the inter­war years, through his dra­wings and port­fo­lios. For this he was loved and hated, tried in court, and decla­red a “dege­ne­rate” artist.

On first sight, it indeed appears as though after Grosz’s immi­gra­tion there is little left of his fear­lessness, his fiery agi­ta­tion. By accepting a teaching position at The Art Stu­dents League, he exe­cuted a radi­cal break with his old life. He had not only esca­ped from a regime that saw him as an enemy – he also left Ger­many in bit­ter­ness about the country’s wor­kers’ move­ment and intel­lec­tual left, which yiel­ded to the Nazis almost wit­hout a fight. His state­ments (“The air in Man­hat­tan had somet­hing inex­pli­cably exci­ting about it, somet­hing that spur­red my work onwards… - I was fil­led with light and colors and joy”) hint at how libe­rated Grosz felt by having left behind not only Ger­many, but also the obvious def­eat of his own arti­s­tic mis­sion. Released from the cor­ro­sive bit­ter­ness of the issues to which he kept retur­ning in Ger­many, he tur­ned towards the New World full of opti­mism and amaze­ment. He arrived in New York as a lover: alre­ady in 1916 he had played with the idea of emi­gra­ting to the US, and had pre­emp­tively ang­li­cized his last name, from Groß to Grosz. He also arrived as an admi­rer of the open society – he could not, nor did he want to, com­ment on the situa­tion in the Ame­rica with the same acer­bic wit that he had used to chas­tise Prus­sian mili­ta­rism. But it was precisely this witty, extremely cri­ti­cal poli­ti­cal artist who was admi­red by the Ame­ri­can pub­lic, who was fami­liar mostly with Grosz’s portfolios.

The first two years saw the pro­duc­tion mostly of street sce­nes and citys­ca­pes that styli­s­ti­cally followed in the vein of the Ber­lin years. Soon, how­e­ver, cracks began to appear in the hope­ful dreams, pes­si­mism and depres­sion caught up with Grosz. The com­mer­cial success he had hoped for never mate­ria­lized, he increas­ingly saw his teaching job as a bur­den, and news from Europe – not only from Ger­many, also from the Spa­nish civil war – con­fir­med his worst fears. When in late 1935 Grosz once again began to paint in oil, he pro­du­ced extremely gloomy lands­ca­pes along­side family por­traits and still lifes. More and more he felt a kinship with old mas­ters like Hie­ro­ny­mus Bosch and Pie­ter Brue­gel, whose pre­mo­nitions of the Thirty Years! War inspi­red him, on the eve of World War II, to depict the apo­ca­lypse in a style remi­ni­scent of the old masters.

At the same time, Grosz was wor­king as an illust­ra­tor for pub­li­ca­tions such as “Esquire” and “Vanity Fair,” and con­tri­buted dra­wings to short sto­ries by Ben Hecht and O. Henry. But these acti­vities, too, bore with them dis­ap­point­ments: his large, care­fully exe­cuted works were often redu­ced to mere stamp-size. “Oddly enough, I was never able to approach the very sim­pli­city and nor­ma­lity of Ame­ri­can illust­ra­tion that I admi­red so much,” Grosz admit­ted. In 1936 he tried to repli­cate his major succes­ses of the 1920s, Ecce Homo and Der Spießer-Spiegel, with the port­fo­lio Inter­reg­num. Simi­lar success, how­e­ver, was not forthcoming.

Grosz found moments of hap­pi­ness with his wife Eva and his sons Peter and Mar­tin on the beaches of Cape Cod. A num­ber of dra­wings, water­co­lors and oil pain­tings of the dune lands­cape attest to Grosz’s fasci­na­tion with nature as an arti­s­tic topic: the dunes are popu­lated by naked women in more or less expli­cit poses – and even those lands­ca­pes devoid of people remain char­ged with an obvious ero­ti­cism. The quiet lands­ca­pes and nudes were cause for cri­ti­cism and dis­ap­point­ment among old fri­ends and admi­rers. Grosz con­fessed to being a roman­tic, and paraph­rased a pas­sage by Walt Whit­man: “Do I con­tra­dict myself? / Very well then, I con­tra­dict myself, / I am large, I con­tain multi­tu­des.” Grosz’s con­nec­tion to this stanza is key to under­stan­ding his arti­s­tic per­so­na­lity – par­ti­cu­larly of the Ame­ri­can years. For here he created not only lands­ca­pes and acts, but at the same time highly poli­ti­cal works he cal­led “ima­ges of hell.” In these works, where he gives up on beauty for the sake of a dra­s­tic ima­gery, he con­ju­res up the end of civi­liza­tion and sees hell on earth come to pass. He reacted with arti­s­tic rage to the tor­ture and mur­der of his old fri­end Erich Müh­sam by the Nazis and to the sto­ries told by the wri­ter Hans Bor­chardt after his release from a con­cen­tra­tion camp. The longed-for end of the war brought with it the rec­og­nition that huma­nity was now threate­ned with a nuclear apo­ca­lypse. The Stick­men, post-nuclear crea­tu­res wit­hout bodies, are Grosz’s last major group of works, cul­mi­na­ting in the haun­ting Pain­ter of the Hole. He bade farewell to Ame­rica with a group of col­la­ges – a joy­ful return to a tech­ni­que of the Ber­lin years: “You stay Dada all your life.” Grosz died in July 1959, only a few mon­ths after retur­ning to Berlin.

When he finally retur­ned from New York to Ber­lin in 1959 he remar­ked in sur­prise how Ame­ri­can the city had become. With this com­ment, Grosz had retur­ned home in a num­ber of ways. George Grosz, his art and his bio­graphy exemp­lify the life of artists and intel­lec­tuals in the 20th cen­tury, as well as Germany’s glory and misery in this cen­tury. In this sense, too, Grosz is an epochal figure.” (Peter-Klaus Schuster)




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