Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Agitator

Patriotism comes in many forms. If pointing out your country’s failures and weaknesses is patriotism, than George Grosz, born on this date in 1893, may have been Germany’s greatest 20th century patriot. Along with Otto Dix, Grosz promoted the Neue Sachlichkeit or “New Objectivity” movement in German art to show the Weimar Republic of the 1920s its true face and to warn of the dangers of listening to political demagogues. The Agitator (above), from 1928, prophesizes the coming influence of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist, aka Nazi, movement. Grosz views Germany with an “objective” eye (objectivity being in the eye of the beholder, of course) jaundiced by his satiric approach to the decadence and cruelty he sees around him. Paradoxically, Grosz sees disfigurement and surrealism as the only means by which an objectively true view of a twisted society can be portrayed.

Grosz volunteered to fight in World War I, believing that it was a noble cause. Discharged in 1915 due to illness, Grosz took his wartime experiences to heart and developed a hatred for the excesses of German society that led to the lust for conflict. His Suicide (above), painted in 1916, symbolizes not only the death of a generation of German youth, embodied by the fallen young man, but also the death of German culture, embodied by the grotesque prostitute and the disfigured old man by her side.

As in Suicide, Grosz floods the backdrop of Metropolis (above), painted in 1917, with crimson, as if the blood of the dead rained from the skies. Grosz paints all of Weimar Germany as a “red light district” of disillusion and ill-repute—Berlin as Sodom and Gomorrah. Some of Grosz’s dystopian vision of his native Germany may stem from his romanticized picture of America, thanks to the pioneering novels of James Fennimore Cooper and the Western fictions of Bret Harte and German author Karl May, who peopled his novels with fantastic characters of a heroic American West and became the most successful and popular German novelist of his time, read devotedly by even Hitler himself.

Grosz packed up his righteous indignation and fled Nazi Germany in 1932 for the shores of America, where he became a United States citizen in 1938. Grosz’ Cain, or Hitler in Hell (above) from 1944 places the dictator in the devil’s den, surrounded by the skeletal dead at his feet and clearly feeling the infernal, eternal heat. Despite the gruesome nature of his works, Grosz always sided with the angels, focusing his aim squarely on hypocrisy and evil and hoping to make the world more beautiful through the ugliness of his art.

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