George Grosz, who spent much of his childhood in a small town in the German province of Pomerania, was fascinated by big cities. Those that gripped his imagination most were the biggest and most frenetic – above all, Berlin and New York. He made Berlin his home until the rise of Nazism made Germany unbearable, but he dreamt of America, his youthful imagination fired by stories of cowboys and gold diggers. Grosz’s early work, made during the First World War, is his most “Expressionist”. His drawings and paintings of alienated individuals, rioting masses, furtive criminals, prostitutes and (very real) brutal mass violence are staged in the streets, tenements and back alleys of Berlin.
He also absorbed some of the Italian Futurists’ dynamic, energy-laden compositional devices so well suited to conveying the more spectacular effects of modernity – electric lighting, mass transport and the surging movement of urban crowds. Described by a Dadaist colleague, Hans Richter, as a “savage boxer, fighter and hater,” Grosz became a key figure in the Berlin Dada movement. His pugnacious nature, his fearlessly irreverent sense for the absurd and dark humour were fuel for Dada’s political momentum as well as its anti-art stance. These aspects of Grosz, which infuse much of his work, made him resistant to many of the more literary, romantic and utopian aspects of Expressionism.
However, what Grosz undeniably shares with Expressionist contemporaries is a fascinating sensitivity to the intoxicating life pulse and dynamism of the city. In 1933, to escape Nazi persecution, he emigrated with his wife to America. In 1959 he finally returned to Berlin, only to die barely a month later after a highspirited night out on the town.
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