GEORGE GROSZ: THE BIG NO A new Hayward Touring exhibition from Southbank Centre, London Opening Sheffield Institute of the Arts Gallery 17 March – 15 April 2012
George Grosz (1893-1959) was one of the greatest satirical artists of the 20th century. A co-founder of the Berlin Dada group and a revolutionary in the 1920s, he made hundreds of drawings depicting the vices and injustices of a society on the brink of economic and moral collapse. Many of Grosz’s drawings were published in portfolios by the left wing publisher Malik-Verlag and this new Hayward Touring exhibition presents two of the most powerful: ‘Ecce Homo’, 1923, and ‘Hintergrund’ (‘Background’), 1928*. The exhibition opens at the Sheffield Institute of the Arts Gallery and tours to venues across the UK and Eire in 2012.
‘Ecce Homo’ (‘Behold the Man’ – the words spoken by Pontius Pilate when he presented Christ to the people) was Grosz’s largest portfolio, consisting of photo-lithographic reproductions of 84 black and white drawings and 16 watercolours (a small number of watercolours will be shown in the exhibition). The drawings show Grosz at the height of his satirical powers, as he presents a monstrous menagerie of Berlin characters, capturing a society living in the shadow of hyper-inflation and social disorientation, divided between fascism and communism. The drawings range from the primitive and graffiti-like, to complex Futuristic street scenes and depict city streets, workers’ hovels, seedy night bars and brothels and caricatures of black marketeers, pimps, prostitutes, demobbed soldiers and the nouveau-riche. Shortly after publication in 1923, Grosz and his publisher were prosecuted for obscenity and the printing plates for Ecco Homo were destroyed. Later when the Nazis came to power, the remaining books and portfolios were publicly burned in May 1933. Only a few copies survived.
The second small portfolio of 17 drawings included in the exhibition is ‘Hintergrund’ (‘Background’), published in 1928 on the occasion of Erwin Piscator’s production the anti-war play ‘The Good Soldier Schwejk’. Grosz collaborated with Piscator and designed the sets, masks and stage costumes and produced projections. The portfolio Hintergrund was distributed to the audience at the première – these and other drawings were projected onto a screen above the stage. The anti-militarist message of the portfolio, particularly the image of the crucified Christ wearing a gas mask and military boots, resulted in criminal charges against artist and publisher for ‘blasphemy and defamation of the German military’. It was the longest trial in pre-Nazi German history, and eventually resulted in an acquittal.
In 1933 Grosz fled to the US days before Hitler came to power. While in exile, the Nazi government stripped him of his German citizenship and in 1937 his work featured prominently in the Nazi’s notorious ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition. Grosz became an American citizen in 1938 and continued to live in the US until 1959, when he returned to Berlin. He died just a few months later.