George Grosz (1893 – 1959)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

As a German anti-Nazi satirist who composed much of his work amidst the rise and fall of The Third Reich, George Grosz (originally ‘Georg’ until 1916 when he anglicised the spelling in antinationalist protest) is a fascinating figure both historically and artistically. Damning and iconoclastic, Grosz’s vibrant, skewered depictions of his battered time are as savage as they are prescient.

To Oskar Panizza – (1917/18)

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Witnessed from high above, the maniacal parade of flags, sabres and hellfire trundles past the viewer with a palpable fury. A procession itself of a chaotic mixture, churning figures prevalent in the post-war despair of the Weimar Republic (the evangelising priest, the jingoistic general etc.) with Grosz’s own apocalyptic flourishes of tone and vision.

Amidst this kaleidoscope display of dulled, oppressive yet varied hues, everything comes tinged with some darkness. The only natural light within appearing from the back – a small fire which has sprung up spontaneously taking several bodies with it.

And perhaps that’s all for the best as this appears a brutal, hellish world. Take the aforementioned priest at the bottom left for example, he who brandishes a brittle white cross, rising from the dead off the back of a pig hybrid that greedily cradles a bottle of wine. This duo themselves being but a moment amongst a panoply of grotesque detail throughout. A world that seems creaky on its hinges as the buildings leer in and out of frame.

Revealingly in retrospect, Grosz detailed the piece as a reflection of his own view of society at the time, his goal to show ‘a diabolical procession of human figures… their faces eloquent of alcohol, syphillis, plague’. A procession who appear riven by a skeleton that carries on atop them by coffin. A symbol easily missed perhaps as its own vague skin assimilates into the riot below, but one that’s important as it serves reminder that though the depiction of this world is cartoonish, the realities are still pertinent. Maybe with our future hindsight it is easy to dismiss the intent, but with such technique and unflinching directness, ‘To Oskar Panizza’ is impossible to ignore.

And Oskar Panizza himself? Understandably he was not a man of peace or reason, rather an objector of the most conscientious and rigorous kind. Repelled by the church, the army (Grosz himself was twice expelled for poor health) and authority of any sort whatsoever. The writer Kurt Tucholsky described Panizza as the most daring, barbed, witty and revolutionary prophet Germany had ever seen – perhaps in Grosz he has found fitting tribute.

‘The Painter of the Hole’ – (1948)

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During World War II, a conflict which felt all but inevitable to Grosz for years prior, the German painted a number of apocalyptic scenes expressing his despair and hopelessness at the tragic developments he had warned of in vain – see ‘The Pit’ or ‘Cain, or Hitler in Hell’

Perhaps it is logical then that in the aftermath of WWII the artist near-exclusively adopted the use of stickmen, a symbol of artistic impotency in the face of annihilation. They are, after all, perfect signifiers of nothingness and fundamentals, something Grosz expanded upon in a letter to the playwright Bertolt Brecht, stating, ‘they consist of thin but firm strokes. They cast no shadow, and are themselves completely grey’.

Yet there seems a paradox at the heart of this painting. As in demonstrating the futility of depiction, Grosz has in fact created a wonderful work. One that is wry and knowing, the message clear and the technique assured. And beneath the Hole Painter’s chair especially, there is great work. The distressed, drained palette allowing Grosz to contrast the squeezed paint tubes and scored notebooks with the flotsam and jetsam of rubble and mess. The righthand corner which gathers with forgotten reproductions of the past, their own images slowly peeling off the canvas back into the dirt. All there seems to be here is the sense of something missing.

The figure himself stands clear from the rest of the faded image with his comic, ghost-like appearance. His weak wrist almost as fluid as the paint that flicks from it. Easily mocked as he is though, this is a man that seems to be respected, seems to be something that Grosz charges with heroism rather than mock defeat. And perhaps this is because he keeps going; through the chaos all around, past the rat that gathers on his image and the other that waits at his feet, his own eye sees forth and he continues to depict knowing that it will offer no change against the past.

Or, more likely in truth as it is with Grosz, this is a final image of defeat. A wonderfully evocative painting with a quieting message about a final loss of hope.

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Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

As the only female member of America’s (at the time) only indigenous modern-art movement, Precisionism, it would perhaps have made sense for Elsie Driggs to produce art concerned with a separation from the established order. As it were though, as with the majority of her fellow Precisionists (see the term-coiner himself, Charles Sheeler) the Connecticut born artist is nowhere to be found in her work. Rather, ‘The Javitz Center’ & ‘Pittsburgh’, along with numerous other topographically titled works of Driggs, center on the idea of place & object, approaching the familiar with a hard-edged, oft abstract vision.

‘The Javitz Center’ – 1926

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We come to ‘The Javitz Centre’ from an intimidating, underside angle. A perspective that pins & perplexes the viewer; first in the optically intriguing glass that overlays the skin of the building & the sky alike, and then secondly through the sheer size of the construction. Regardless then of what this colossal feat actually holds within, the title indicating some sort of exhibition center perhaps, its sheer sense of purpose is readily apparent through its engulfing display.

Though a little gauche maybe in terms of its presentation, the underlying conceit here finds Driggs suggesting through the diaphanous form of the sky and the structure that they have achieved a new similarity of permanence. Sky scrapers and eyesores were burgeoning at the time, something slowly being realised here by Driggs as a symptom of the future rather than mere fad.

What could have been quick & gimmicky in its execution is stunningly rendered through a thoughtful approach to the catoptric elements. At the top roof section for example, where there is little visual interference, the blue of the sky fades into the glass effortlessly, creating a languid sense of the afternoon absorbed in the building itself. Down below the reflections get more quivery as the building seems to reflect in of itself. The shaky lines arching back as bars as Driggs imagines the complexity of these cast iron lines interacting with a representation of themselves.

‘Pittsburgh’ – 1927

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Yet again, Driggs is taking us to the lesser seen angles of common utilities. Tellingly in ‘Pittsburgh’ we aren’t even given a form or function, rather it is these drab tunnels, these elements of machinery keeping the place running that stand for the southwestern town. There is a sense of humour here though in ‘Pittsburgh’, one found in the essence of contradiction throughout.

As the association to such a sight is initially one of hard work; a tough, sour place in which the world is kept moving.What’s unusual then is the freshness of the forms, almost as if the tubes and equipment were themselves pulled straight new from a production line, of which there are not doubt hundreds within. A comparison could even be made to the factory looking like a trumpet of sorts, the four towers as sooty, ethereal valves. Indeed the place feels at once heavy and weightless through the shifting, mercurial smog.

With this dislocation in place, Driggs does what most great art tends to do, it defamiliarise the familiar. It suggests new interpretations of the common, forgettable backdrop of my of our lives. Be it back in 1927 when this could be taken as an image of great hope & promise, or right now when the factory seems to smoke as a charred carcass.

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