George Grosz in Germany, on view at the New York Studio School Gallery, offers a rich overview of Grosz’s development as an artist and dissident. The works on paper, all from the Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection, featured in the show from 1913–1925 could be considered collectively like a piece of documentary, a primary source for visualizing life in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. It is the portrait of a war victim coming to grips with the underlying horror of everyday reality.
Much of his early work, before 1920, fits well into more traditional forms of graphic art like newspaper illustrations, political cartoons, and one work that echoes the lines of Durer’s engravings. Grosz’s pen and ink drawings like “Das Ende,” Chaos,” and “Untitled (Man Walking His Dog),” are less typical for being unapologetically raw and impulsively drawn. They might be Grosz at his best and most disturbed, truly “degenerate.”
In the aftermath of World War I, Grosz’s loose, almost painterly approach is more soberly inflected. Grosz’s drawings from this period are described as caricature, in that they serve as a caustic remark upon the Weimar Republic, however, his message is not explicit, in fact, Grosz’s use of cartoon-like imagery and its perceived inferiority in the hierarchy of the arts only sublimates his askance glance at German society. In works like, “Bar Montmartre,” “Berlin Cafe,” and “Portraits,” Grosz offers a gadfly on the wall view of Bourgeois Berliners in situ: on the streets, in cafés, nightclubs, bars, and brothels. His slice of life portraits are immediately nerve wracking, asking the viewer to look for whatever it is that’s awry.
Grosz’s deranged yet graceful pen work might first appear as the aping of primitive or outsider art, but it is not merely an artistic affection. His cross-sectional surveying of a scene, marked by intersecting lines, suggests a sustained observation of a subject over time; despite looking like cartoons, they are not imaginary. Grosz’s fluid composition has added fluency in the era of the moving picture — his work unfolds across the paper. Harsh variance in line thickness, suggesting a depth-of-field, further emphasizes a cinematic perspective. In many works Grosz’s seemingly inexpert handling of facial features, the eyes and mouth in particular, gives each subject a distinct personality; however, his rendering of hands is most telling of all.
The gnarled hand featured in detail on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue hints at what lurks within each work. They recall the contorted appearance of barbed wire, the impact of mustard gas on the nervous system, or the jittering recoil of a machine gun: suggestions of World War I’s lingering trauma. While an entire generation of men was lost or physically wounded, a tell-tale sign of the war’s immediate impact, the psychological toll was more easily repressed. Shell shock, what we now know as PTSD, was disregarded by prominent doctors at the time because it was viewed as a sign of weak will and no conclusive test could prevent anyone from claiming it. However, in extreme cases, PTSD did produce a physiological response, caught on film for the first time and shown in news reels — psychological trauma made indisputable.
While Grosz’s military service was brief — he was discharged after a month of service — it had a profound influence on his work. The catalogue text for the recent Dada exhibition at Museum of Modern Art mentions that Grosz “may have suffered shell shock.” After some internet sleuthing, I found that he did, in fact, suffer from shell shock towards the end of the war in 1917.
Grosz’s own words describing the mental turmoil he suffered on the battlefield:
“My nerves broke down, this time before I could even get near the front and see rotting corpses and barbed wire … Nerves, down to the tiniest fiber, nausea, revolt — pathological, maybe —anyway, a total breakdown, even in the face of omnipotent regulations”
As Grosz’s experience suggests, shell shock is much more than a temporary condition caused by exposure to shock waves from bomb blasts. Shell shock, or PTSD, is a lasting impression left by any sort of exposure to the grotesqueries of war. PTSD is a suitable condition to ascribe to Germany itself post-WWI, made all the more relevant by the fact that Hitler’s experience with the disorder is suggested to have led to his radicalization. Unfortunately for the world, Hitler did not recover through cathartic mark-making like Grosz.
Caricature serves as perfect metaphor for a mind off-kilter, Grosz reduces Weimar society to a few discernible lines, and each stroke provides him a platform for airing his grievances. His restraint is at once raw and elegant, a calculated vacillation between astute draftsmanship and unrestrained gesture, offering a level of psychological insight we risk losing with increasing dependence on computer intervention between the artist and object. Grosz’s pen and ink on paper drawings provide indelible intimacy with a mind maimed by war.
George Grosz in Germany, curated by Karen Wilkin, is on view at the New York Studio School Gallery (8 West 8th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) until January 4.