George Grosz (*1893 Berlin DE | †1956 West Berlin DE), born Georg Ehrenfried Groß, was a German artist who was a prominent member of the Berlin Dada and New Objectivity groups of the Weimar Republic and is best known for his macabre caricatural works criticizing capitalism. His paintings, drawings, and prints follow the course of Germany, from defeat in the First World War, through an economic and political crisis, to the rise of Fascism. After his immigration to the United States, his work and style dramatically changed towards sentimental romanticism.
Grosz was born in Berlin, but he grew up in Stolp, a small town in eastern Pomerania (now Poland). He spent much of his childhood reading luridly illustrated pulp fiction, the adventure stories of Karl May and James Fenimore Cooper's novels about the trappers and Indians of colonial North America. His earliest known sketchbooks date to 1905, in which soldiers feature prominently as well as robbers, cowboys, and Indians. This was the first art he saw and it would be a formative influence on his work. Many of these stories took place in the Wild West, building an idealistic view of American culture in Georg's mind that persisted into adulthood.
At school, Grosz was a rebel. In 1908 he was expelled from school for striking back after receiving punishment from a teacher. Luckily, his drawing master recognized his talents and helped him apply to the Dresden Academy of Art. His personal style developed outside the classroom, strongly influenced by Jugendstil, magazines, and cartoon illustrations, the freak show Fun Fairs he visited as a child, and his fascination with the military, and the Wild West. In order to support himself as a serious artist, he sold drawings and cartoons to popular magazines. In 1910 his sketches were published for the first time in Ulk, the comic supplement of the Berliner Tageblatt.
In 1911 Grosz moved to Berlin. He looked to develop his work and began to execute studies from life for the first time. He immersed himself in the pleasures of the city, drawing inspiration from café culture and nightlife. He showed a growing interest in the macabre and the surreal in a series of drawings of circus performers and prostitutes. Expressionism then dominated the avant-garde in all the German arts. It celebrated the self and employed extreme distortions of reality to convey exaggerated emotions. Soon after his arrival in Berlin, Grosz met several Expressionist writers. He was impressed by the style, especially its violent and otherwise sensational subject matter. In his drawings, suburban streets and domestic interiors increasingly became the settings of brawls, savage murders, and suicides.
Seeing the war stories of his childhood adventure novels come to life in the beginnings of the First World War, Grosz joined the army in 1914. However, his regiment was not immediately ordered to the front and before he even saw the battle he found himself in a military hospital with a severe sinus infection. After an operation in 1915, he was declared unfit and discharged from the army. Although his encounter with the Prussian military had been brief, his army experiences were disturbing enough to change him thoroughly. It brought forward a bleakly pessimistic side of his personality. Cynical drawings, such as The Faith Healers (1916) documented his experiences as a soldier and demonstrated the dissolution of his idealistic beliefs regarding war. He became fiercely anti-nationalist. He spoke English and drew caricatures of German people, citizens, soldiers, and clergymen. In order to both distance himself from his German roots, and to proclaim his affinity for American culture he had his name legally changed to George Grosz in 1916.
In 1919 Grosz joined the Dada movement in Berlin, as his critical view of German society aligned with their ideals. In his, work Grosz presents to us the characters who gave capitalism its dangerously seductive and repulsive face: the prostitutes and pimps, the beggars and black marketers, the scheming politicians, vengeful military, and judiciary, the dissatisfied workers, and self-important bourgeoisie. He participated in the first Dada publications, exhibitions, and actions. Because of his activities, Grosz soon became a revolutionary figure and had a warrant issued for his arrest by the conservative government. Due to the increasing political instability in Berlin, he was forced to spent several months abroad in the 1920s, before accepting an invitation to teach at the Art Students League of New York in 1932.
In 1937, some of his works are shown in the exhibition of Degenerate Art, organized in Berlin by the Nazi regime, and all of his works were removed from German museums. Despite his hero status in Germany and his critical acclaim in America, Grosz sold little work and was forced to keep on teaching at the League. He grew depressed and dependent on alcohol. He felt his efforts as an artist resulted in no real change in society and he declared that he was finished with social and political issues. His style softened to a sentimental romanticism. He drew landscapes that reflected a new inner peace. Some of his last pieces from 1958 were photomontages and remind of his earlier Dadaist aesthetic and message, passing judgment upon consumerism, suggesting a new disillusionment with American culture.
In May 1959, Grosz moved back to Berlin where he died two months later. An iconic figure of the period, his works can be found in major institutions all over the world including the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Tate, London.