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A Grosz cabaret.

When asked why he left Germany in 1933, the German Modernist painter . George Grosz (1893-1959) replied with rare understatement `I left because of Hitler. He is a painter too, you know, and there didn't seem to be room for both of us in Germany.' Grosz, the subject of an exhibition currently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, emerged from the circle of Expressionist, activist artists and intellectuals fermenting class war in the Berlin of 1917. He achieved something few of his fellow Dadaists could: mainstream popularity for his visceral yet brilliant satire.

Grosz was a prominent member of the circle of left-wing Expressionist artists which formed in Berlin in the 1920s. Trained there and in Paris, he began by sketching street and cafe scenes in the Berlin of 1912, the year when he also began oil painting. Exempted from military service in 1914 as psychologically unfit for combat, Grosz continued to sketch, with his drawings and poems appearing in radical Communist journals. He is now seen as one of the most devastating satirists of Weimar Germany, skilfully evoking the corrupt ethos of the times through his political cartoons and the social commentary of his paintings.

The exhibition consists of a selection of Grosz's work from 1912 to 1930, his most productive period. He saw his vocation clearly es `committed art in the service of the revolutionary cause.' thus Grosz became strongly associated with the nihilistic, anti-art Dada movement, of which he was an early and leading exponent.

Grosz was quick to join the new German Communist party receiving his membership card in person from Rosa Luxembourg. His work became increasingly politicised as Weimar Germany became more turbulent. Grosz supported the 1919 Spartacist uprising in Berlin, which aimed to overthrow the Social Democrat Weimar government and replace it with socialism, directing his work against the forces which had crushed the `Soviet Republic of Bavaria.' Der Weisse General was a typical piece, depicting the archetypal brutal, monacled army officer in triumph above a mound of corpses. Painted in 1922, it refers to the generals who recruited the Freikorps, the ultra right-wing army units that ended the Communist putsch in Berlin and first made use of the Swastika as their emblem. Grosz compares them to the `White' counter-revolutionary forces opposing the Bolsheviks in Russia, whom, as a Communist, he also despised.

George Grosz called for the destruction of art galleries and traditional, bourgeois art, as was in keeping with the Dadaist urge to shock. He was a fierce opponent of the Weimar government, which he saw as being merely a puppet of a perceived capitalist/militarist conspiracy to oppress the masses. He was also a harsh critic of the First World War, in `Die Gesundbeter'a sketch based on a poem by Bertolt Brecht, a medical committee passes a rotting corpse `fit' for duty at the front, while two oblivious generals chat in the foreground. The wider metaphor is a comment on the futility and callousness of the German military establishment's continuation of the war in 1918. This was one of the drawings which appeared at the `first international Dada-meeting' in Berlin in June 1920.

Grosz remained politically active until 1924, illustrating the official Communist party organ Die Rote Fahne, and forming the `Red Group', the first union of Communist artists committed to producing `agitprop'. However the natural expressionistic basis of his work did not fit with the party line, and could not be subjugated forever in the name of propaganda. The agitprop committee at the Party Congress of 1925 concluded that a `Communist critique and ideology' was absent from Grosz's work. Besides the artist himself had begun to receive large commissions for his work, which had attracted the interest of the bourgeois society he so loathed. Disillusioned, Grosz had ceased to pay his party dues. He also had a family to look after, and seemed content to see his art enter the mainstream.

In 1933 Grosz moved to New York permanently and later became an American citizen, returning to live in Germany only weeks before his sudden death in 1959. Strangely, despite the frequency and popularity of his exhibitions in the USA, financial wealth would always elude Grosz.

Grosz was more than just a propagandist and satirist: this exhibition, the first in Britain since 1962, demonstrates his bold use of line, which gave such striking permanence and authority to his work, combined with great powers of observation and a willingness to fuse innovative styles and techniques with classic Expressionist approaches. The show includes drawings, prints and watercolours, many of which have never before been seen in the UK, providing a darkly illuminating chance to immerse oneself in the seedy subculture of Weimar Germany.

The Berlin of George Grosz continues until the 8th June 1997, at .the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London. Admission is from 10am to 6pm daily, including Sundays. Ticket pace: 5 [pounds sterling] Adults; 3.50 [pounds sterling] concessions; 2.50 [pounds sterling] 12-18 years; 1 [pounds sterling] 8-11 years. For information on accompanying courses and educational aids ring 0171 494 5732/5733.
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Title Annotation:George Grosz, Royal Academy of Arts, London, England
Author:Barker, Alex
Publication:History Today
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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