Georg Groß altered the spelling of his name. Repulsed by German nationalism, the artist changed Georg to George, and his last name to Grosz. That was in 1916, the year Germany’s government banned foreign films, at a time when the 23-year-old Berliner was engaged in his furious expressionism. Grosz drew men drunk, men vomiting, men disfigured. It was the time of war.
In 1921, his satirical collection of lithographs, “Gott mit uns”—“God with us” having been a Prussian expression adopted by the German military—resulted in a fine for insulting the army. In 1928, Grosz was prosecuted for blasphemy after publishing anticlerical drawings, one depicting Christ coerced into military service. These were the days of Weimar democracy.
I’ve come to New York to Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie to see Grosz’s most famous painting, Eclipse of the Sun, an example of New Objectivity. The 1926 canvas is on loan from the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York, and serves as the centerpiece of an exhibit of art from Weimar Germany. On a warm, humid Saturday in late July the museum—a mansion at 86th and 5th Avenue known as the William Starr Miller House—is well attended. A line waits outside.
Eclipse of the Sun is a hot mess. The backdrop is a city in flames. The central figure is the walrus-mustached German President, Paul von Hindenburg. Portly, elderly, and adorned in war medals, von Hindenburg—focused on a funerary cross and bloodied sword on a table—is surrounded by four headless financiers. A man wearing a top hat, with weapons tucked under his arm, whispers into von Hindenburg’s ear. There’s a dark sun in the background illuminated with a dollar sign. A donkey, wearing blinders emblazoned with the German eagle, stands on a platform atop the table, and is tethered to a skeleton on the floor.
To step into this period is to be reminded of the late historian Tony Judt’s quip about the never-ending conceit we seem to have, of thinking that our human struggles are forever unique and new.
Neither Left nor Right today are able to secure a sure footing. Creedal passions stir. Polarization worsens. Perspective is in short supply.
In the current issue, Gabriel Schoenfeld and Richard Thompson Ford weigh in. While Schoenfeld works to identify dangers in national conservative agendas, Ford argues that mainstream politicians are ignoring the roots of the new socialism. Neo-socialists have filled a vacuum, he contends, leading on the challenges new technology creates for human welfare. There is lure in this for younger voters especially. And opportunity for all of us—including for capitalism itself, says Ford—if only extreme positions can be moderated.
In a review of two books, TAI colleague Aaron Sibarium says Polish Catholic conservative Ryszard Legutko and Rutgers black feminist Brittney Cooper ought to read each other. There are parallels in rage, Sibarium suggests—and troubling implications, as the fringe enters the mainstream. Strange bedfellows, these. The geometric absurdity of expressionism comes to mind.
For perspective, TAI associate editor Sean Keeley traveled to Dresden recently to explore the Saxon art scene, and found this part of Mitteleuropa relitigating its past, battling culture wars of its own. Again.
In 1933, George Grosz left Germany for the United States, where he eventually made his home as a naturalized citizen in Bayside, New York, a part of Queens. He drew for The New Yorker. He painted Cape Cod landscapes.
Grosz’s roots stayed with him. In his 1946 autobiography, A Little Yes and a Big No, he writes that “I feel . . . that I am heir to an old German tradition which always makes me see two sides—life and death—and has stopped me shouting blithely: Life! Life!” Even in nature or on vacation in America Grosz recounts “the asparagus-like stench” of a dead skunk on the road, food gone mysteriously bad, bloated horseflies.
In May 1959, the 65-year-old Grosz moved back to a Germany divided, this time torn between communist east and democratic west. It was in West Berlin in July that summer, after a night of hard drinking and a spill down the stairs, that Grosz met death.
Perhaps history (and art) can get us to ease, and sober, up.
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