Beth Irwin Lewis, George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic
Princeton Paperbacks, 1991, 342pp.
Reviewed by Maggie Jaffe
Beth Irwin Lewis's reprint of her 1971 George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic is worth serious consideration today for three key reasons: First, as a corrective to the conservative scholarship done on Grosz in the 1980s. In her "Preface to the Second Edition," Lewis states: "in a curious replaying of his own political commitment and then disillusionment, several writers shifted attention from Grosz the activist artist to Grosz the cynical bourgeois artist, an interpretation presented in a two-hour BBC film and in books by Eberle and Kane" (XIV). In fact, since Lewis's 1971 publication, more than sixty new books and articles, as well as Grosz's autobiography, A Little Yes and a Big No, have appeared in print. A checklist of articles, books and movies on his work and life are included at the back of her book.
Second, in the spirit of the current mode of feminism, Lewis felt compelled to rethink Grosz's seeming misogyny. She admits to originally calling his drawings "eroticism in service of communist propaganda," focusing principally on Grosz's "war" against class-oppression and militarism. Nevertheless, in spite of the "liberal" Weimar Republic, the idea of autonomous women generated anxiety not only in the middle classes, but in Grosz's artistic-intellectual circles as well. In truth, Grosz perceived prostitutes as collaborators with Capital, not as sex industry workers. And the majority of Grosz's portraits of women were of prostitutes. Perhaps his prudery was a result of his Prussian Protestant background, in spite of his relationship with other bohemian artists, revolutionaries and oppressed workers.
Third, Lewis describes Grosz the artist-revolutionary during the unstable period which preceded the Nazi putsch in 1933. Here she raises an important point, namely whether Grosz's satiric polemics against the ruling class and the military actually reinforced antidemocratic impulses in the German middle class; even as the counterculture [in her view] of the 1960s hastened the counterrevolution in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, Lewis claims that certain aspects of the fragile Weimar Republic are analogous with the 1960s.
With the death of his father in 1900, George Grosz grew up in the proletarian section of Berlin where he suffered from "genteel" poverty. Later his mother secured a housekeeping job in the Hussar Officers' Club where the young Grosz closely observed the military class which he would later satirize in so much of his work. As a soldier in World War I, he like thousands of other men, took an aggressive antimilitary stance. Officially, his discharge from the army was because of a severe sinus condition, but actually a portfolio of his drawings convinced the authorities of his "insanity," and he was found to be "persistently unfit for war."
His friendship with Wieland Herzfelde and his brother John Heartfield, beginning in 1915, was decisive for Grosz the artist and revolutionary. [Heartfield anglicized his name to demonstrate solidarity with England during WW1.] By 1919, the three deepened their commitment to revolutionary art, especially after military troops inadvertently shot at a Reubens painting in the downtown Zwinger gallery "instead" of firing on striking workers. As redress, Oskar Kokoschka, a highly respected artist and intellectual at that time, "appeals to the inhabitants of Dresden asking them to settle their arguments somewhere other than in front of Zwinger, where works of art could be damaged" (93). In response, Grosz and Heartfield published their manifesto, "The Artist as Scab":
Unlike Heartfield and Herzfelde, though, Grosz never entirely embraced the proletariat, perceiving the "common man" as enjoying his "baser instincts." Nonetheless, in response to the shootings Grosz said: "There were the people and there were the fascists. I chose the people" (67). And under the auspices of Herzfelde's press, Malik Verlag, Grosz, Heartfield, and Herzfelde, "use art as a weapon" against the ruling class.
Since Grosz, Heartfield, and Herzfelde belonged to the Young Germany Movement, a communist organization formed during the Revolution of 1848, their art was informed by Tendenz, or "tendentious art," "which [deliberately] expresses political opinions and ideological presuppositions... is politically committed... is a tool in class warfare and... is propaganda" 992). According to them, the argument between form and content is meaningless, since all art is determined by class relationships. Unlike Stalin's proclamation that social realism was the true art for the worker, tendency artists incorporated experimentation in their work when it was perceived as a worthy didactic tool for educating workers. In fact, Heartfield's "photomontage" in particular was technologically innovative. Additionally, Heartfield's art was unique in demystifying the Nazis by aligning Fascism with Capitalism.
From the 1960s to the present, European artists employed Heartfield's photomontage techniques to challenge United States' imperial politics in Viet Nam and racist policies "at home' [See Photomontage: A Political Weapon, David Evans and Sylvia Kohl]. Interestingly, contemporary photomontagists censured not only capitalism but communism as well, at least how it was institutionalized in the Soviet Union and China.
In spite of his polemics, Grosz enjoyed critical success even with bourgeois critics, which lasted up until the 1933 Nazi coup, when Hitler began to systematically "purify" art, culminating with The Degenerate Art Exhibit, 1973, which focused its invective against Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and Marc Chagall. By this time, Grosz was in exile in the United States.
Grosz idealized America since his childhood reading of Karl May, the German "cowboy," who glorified the old west in a number of novels. In fact, when asked by a local newspaper in 1930 to locate "paradise," Grosz replied that it is somewhere in the Rocky Mountains (233). Like other Utopians, Grosz was severely disappointed in the United States, mostly because his biting satiric work was not appreciated by the upbeat American Volk. In fact, The Painter of the Hole is one of the most moving examples of his American work. Not surprisingly, this painting does not display Grosz's technical assurance, and the emaciated artist is closely aligned with Kafka's "hunger artist," who is barely discernible by the distracted sensation seekers. In 1959 he moved back to Germany for good. Six weeks later he died after a night of drinking. Workers found him hunched up in a basement in the morning, nearly dead. With his droll sense of satire, Grosz would surely find farcical the prevailing "death" of communism, and the "triumph" of Capitalism.
Although George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic touches on the three key issues I mentioned at the beginning of the review, the updated "Preface" does not satisfactorily explore these subjects. For an in-depth analysis of Grosz and his relation to women, particularly prostitutes, see Lewis's "Lustmord [sex murder]: Inside the Windows of Metropolis," in Berlin: Culture and Metropolis. Oddly, neither is there a critique on Grosz's experience before HUAC, which frightened him enough to make him want to "start over again" in Germany. Nor is there a further investigation between the parallel of the Weimar Republic and liberation movements of the 1960s. However, as a corrective for more retrograde representations of Grosz, as well as an update on the studies done on almost every aspect of his life and art since 1971, Lewis's book is critically important and a highly readable account of this engaged and complex artist.
Maggie Jaffe's publications include Continuous Performance (Viet Nam Generation, 1992), and 1492: What Is It Like to Be Discovered?, a collaborative art and text book on Columbus (Monthly Review Press). She is art editor of Fiction International.