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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Dirk Skreber (1961 –

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

Dirk Skreber is an artist enamoured with catastrophe. One whose eye is mostly for the chaos caused by a faceless omnipotence; the aftermath of a car crash for example, or, as in ‘Untitled’ (below), a flooded suburb. The German’s style is dense yet intimate, populated with moments of tragedy & wonder. His images often providing kindling to personal rumination on our odd relationship with nature.

‘Untitled’ – 2001 

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The punishing length of this piece (300 x 170cm) sludges us in with it from the start. Skreber forces us to count the cost as our eye scours the thick slosh. Noting every wonderfully realised vehicle, every life now ruined as a result of this anonymous spill.

Through its paint fused with tight, subtle layers of tape, a unique thickness and depth is achieved for the grim torrent. Whilst at times small air bubbles creep up off the stratified canvas giving a slightly sickly effect to the brown, the surface is mostly smooth, almost akin to floor tiling in its patterned panelling. By achieving a keen serenity through this repetitive design, Skreber allows the viewer to become quickly acquainted with the true reality of the situation rather than merely wallowing in its shock.

Viewed from above in a voyeuristic, surveillance perspective, the artist presents the cars as microscopic. The row on the left seeming to carve inward like a bacterial strand. They have owners of course, but now they are comically reduced nothings, small shapes that don’t really fit to anything recognisable bar small, contracted versions of themselves. Indeed, the only thing fully familiar is the RV on the back of the white trailer at the left. Its amenities fully flaunted amongst the wet misery – a subtle joke perhaps at its supposed capability to provide a home anywhere.

It is the negative space however that conveys the greatest sense of abstraction. So much of ‘Untitled’ is Skreber’s browned tape that cars come almost as a surprise after a while of staring, their bonnets leering out suggestiveof an unclear time prior.

‘Untitled’ – 1990 

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Though it is a consistent trope of his work, it perhaps makes most sense here, with this very painting, that Skreber left it untitled. As, how would you really describe it? This obscure, rapturous apartment building of various painting styles that exists incoherent on some sea floor. Or, perhaps that’s an entirely wrong analysis of this design and that it’s of something entirely different. Part of the delight in the work seems to be in giving it some logic that it will precariously wriggle out of when viewed again.

There is structure in the tower though, the storied design inviting the viewer to explore each section. From the top which seem to represent cave paintings succumbing to the inner moisture of their rockface canvas, to others more simplistic, such as the middle panels that are mere rushes of colour outstretching no further than their designated floor. Right at the summit too there’s a curious roof which seems to be hollow, peering downwards through the entire thing. Perhaps the suggestion is of sedimentary layers slowly devolving in their progression. Yet the entity does have a bottom, one of a curiously kitchen tabletop blue.

Again, this could very well not be underwater at all, but the wispy shadows cast and the murky, filtered light of the background blend makes methink otherwise. The piece of kelp to the right that rises up against the design also suggests submersion. Its playful evocation seeming to crest at the third floor but in actual fact merging with the tones of the back and topping around the seventh.

Whatever this actually is though, it doesn’t really matter. Rather it is the remarkable confluence of techniques that Skreber employs, along with the cold, disjointed atmosphere, that make ‘Untitled’ such a fascinating work of art. From the harsh realities of ‘Untitled’ to the fantastical escape of ‘Untitled’ (this is getting difficult), the artist maintains a direct level of realism that is both affecting and moving.

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Erich Heckel (1883 – 1970)

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. 

Heckel was one of the original founders of Die Brücke (1905 – 1913), an influential German school of painting that aimed to connect their regional artistic past, such as that seen within the tradition of Neo Romantic painting, with the contemporary Expressionist present – the name translates literally as ‘The Bridge’.

As a result of this interesting style pairing there is much of the inner experience within the work. Immediacy is heightened through an abandonment for the most part of proportion & perspective, with colour, much like through the Fauvists before them, becoming a means of emotion in of itself entirely. Yet whereas the Fauves were filled with exuberance and joy (such as the earlier explored, Raoul Dufy), Heckel’s work is fraught and complex in emotion, developing its direct impact from its precise sense of detail rather than its detail being absorbed by sheer sensation.

‘Crystal Day’ – 1913

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In its own scorched & jagged way there is much beauty within ‘Crystal Day’. Though said attraction doesn’t stem from the faceless voluptuousness cut off at the ankles in the water, or indeed the general quietness of the scene, but rather it is through the use of the angular that Heckel employs throughout.

The image really seems to clamp down around the viewer. The shoreline at the lefthand side extending out from the gently evoked greenery to the water itself and forming a hinge of sorts which leans forward reflecting the abstract clouds to the jagged icicles below. As a result of this inward cast horizon everything is foreshortened. The woman upfront bathing appears to perfectly embody this mildly contorted aesthetic as her oddly positioned arms fit snugly within the cliffside reflection of the water. The worn rocks too are nearby neatly nestled but never touching the cloud patterns on the lake. Heckel’s effect here then is one of the crystalline, a sense of direct statis in which all parts carefully lattice.

The artist has our eye both transfixed into this stillness as well as onto the slightly abstruse cloud patterns that shout from the inverted back edge of the image. These designs seeming less to strive towards any technique, and more to act as fodder in which Heckel can experiment with ideas of reflection and distortion. Everything comes in a furious brush that at times give the scene a slightly uncomfortable edge. As with the majority of Expressionist influenced work of the period, there is an erratic quality burrowed beneath the vision so that the setting and figure are common, but the feelings are not.

‘La fábrica de ladrillos – 1907

Erich Heckel (13)

This painting positively hums with colour. The technique festive and involving, both perfectly logical within the context of Die Brücke’s goals as well as objectively intriguing with its muddy swathed technique. There is no message here, no familiar signal to something else through a compositional language. Rather it is the sense of immediacy that is king.

It does perhaps seem at first that the building stretching throughout the painting is maybe on fire. The lunges of goldenrod lapping above the structure in greedy uproars. But when the bubbling ground and shifting eaves are observed closer it becomes clear that this is merely the mode the German has chosen.

And whilst the ground is remarkable for its strange spills of colour with small tufts of flowers emerging from the undergrowth for a spell before being swallowed by the marshy greens – the sky crafts a sense of actual communication. With the diaphanous sky blue interacting with the blazing sky as if they were two dyes in water. The section around the steep column at the middle of the church is particularly fantastic. Its delicacy of blending a hypnotic construction viewed unclose. Everything seems calculated here by Heckel, the pleasure perhaps more in the ability to construct what appears to be frantic, rather than something that is.

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