George Grosz made the drawings and paintings for which he will be remembered during the First World War and in the Twenties and Thirties. In his autobiography (first published in German in 1955), Old Grosz looks back at Young Grosz, and considers the change of direction which came in his work when he went to America. ‘My life in America began with an inner confrontation – a confrontation with my past. It taught me that caricatures are prized chiefly in periods of cultural decline, that life and death are too fundamental to be subjects of mockery and cheap jibes.’ The lesson was only half-learned. The best parts of his book are coloured by a taste for grotesque detail which recalls his earlier drawings rather than his later ones, and it is never clear how far he rejects, or regrets, his early work. He can be ironical about his desire to float along in the warm stream of American popular illustration: ‘My new motto was: harm none and please all. Assimilation comes easily when you have rejected the common superstition that character is of supreme importance. “Character” does duty as a synonym for inflexibility, and anyone anxious to get on in life had best dispense with it altogether.’ It is sad, almost comical, that the ‘Mild Monster’ (Time’s description) should have expected to find a place for his kind of drawing in the New Yorker – yet one can understand how the bitter taste of his talents could have failed to please him. There is no reason to believe he is being satirical when he writes that ‘even when I was following along insane Dadaist paths or making “angular” expressionist drawings and paintings I had kept sneaking looks over my shoulder at normal true-to-life illustrations. This was genuine art for the masses ... I preferred their saccharine quality to those outpourings of acid, of bogus colours and forms that paraded under the name of modern art.’
Why should he not have preferred a world that gave him no subjects for drawings of disaster, corruption and mutilation? Why should he not have wanted to have skills in representation which would be valued and applauded, to escape from Expressionist angularity, from making drawings which could have been done by a monstrously knowing and talented child? He seems uneasy at the very strength his early work has, because he might be thought to have been excluding himself from the hateful world he was creating. Of Twenties Berlin night-life he writes: ‘I made careful drawings of all these goings-on, deluding myself that I was not so much a satirist as an objective student of nature. In fact I was each one of the very characters I drew, the champagne-drinking glutton favoured by fate no less than the poor beggar standing in the rain. I was split in two just like society at large.’ Nor was it clear that satire was a weapon with any force: ‘Some of our rich acquaintances would approach my friend Erwin and say, “Look Erwin do you think you could do something really good for us ... you could do my friend Oskar stuffing himself the way he always does and then throwing up all over the carpet…” I was included among these court jesters.’
At one point he describes the division in himself as a national characteristic: ‘I feel, and of this at least I am sure, 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!’ Certainly images of death and corruption were not purged from his mind just because he was living in America. He loved (and painted) landscapes around Cape Cod, but the reproductions tacked on his studio wall were Grünewald’s Crucifixion and a painting by Rogier van der Weyden of men and women plunging into hell fire. Even descriptions of nature in America are macabre. What he remembers of a trip with John Dos Passos are the corpses of tortoises squashed on the road, and ‘the asparagus-like stench’ of a run-over skunk. On a holiday at Garnet Lake near New York the food goes mysteriously bad, bloated horseflies and red ants share the bedroom, and the nearest farm breeds vermin –‘a whole mess of crawling, flying, stinging filth’. The division between desire and talent colours so much of the book that it is less an autobiography than an explanation. The story is told in loosely joined scenes – overlapping in time, lapsing into stories and parables when that seems the best way to make a point. The method leaves much hidden – but this too is intentional: ‘I have forgotten a great deal but that is not necessarily a sign of poor memory: the veil drawn over the past is kind and well suited to the face of the times. The unhappy modern habit of tearing away this veil the better to show up the ugliness, the cracks, the chasms and the sores is a relic of 19th-century naturalism.’ He says much more about what he saw and about those he met casually than about people he loved or hated.
The first scenes are domestic. Young Grosz – he was born in 1893 – lying by the stove looking at cuts of the Russo-Japanese War or of colonial skirmishes in Africa in the illustrated papers. The whole second chapter is a description of looking through a crack in the shutters while the aunt of a friend undressed. She was plump. His drawings, like the cuts, went on being packed with figures, and even his most puritanically disgusted drawings show a tenderness for dimpled flesh. He learned more from Wilhelm Busch’s illustrations than from the Dresden Academy – where he went when he failed to get his high-school diploma – and although he tracked down the teacher of composition (who had so few pupils he feared he was being mocked when Grosz asked for instruction in his subject), the ‘Noah and the Flood’ he contrived under the professor’s guidance was not the beginning of a career as a grown-up painter. The struggle to become a ‘natural’ painter ceased. The caricaturist, Dadaist and Expressionist was, however, ready to flex his muscles. Berlin nights before 1914 could offer him subject-matter: Jules Pascin’s Cannibal Ball (the bloody shin-bone one reveller brought finished up beside the statue of Otto the Indolent), jazz bands and tango dancers. You could listen to rumours of war and get drunk on Green Minna: a mixture of potato schnapps and peppermint liqueur – and the German term for a ‘Black Maria’.
When war came it brought boredom, disgust and a taste of hell. Given leave of absence in 1916, Private Grosz started to draw what he had seen: ‘men drunk, men vomiting ... soldiers without noses; war cripples with crab-like limbs of steel ... a one-armed soldier using his good hand to salute a heavily bemedalled lady who had just passed him a biscuit; a colonel, his fly wide open, embracing a nurse ... a skeleton dressed up as a recruit taking a medical’. The descriptions alone give some notion of why this work, and the more politically overt drawings of the post-war years, put Grosz on black lists, and why his fortuitous escape to America, only days before Hitler became Chancellor, saved him from prison or death.
When Grosz arrived in America at the height of the Depression, nothing struck him as particularly grim. He had seen sights worse than what New York could offer – queues for bread and soup or women in furs selling apples. It is those worse, or more striking and stranger, memories which dominate the book. A mysterious midnight excursion in starving post-war Berlin to a flat loaded with tubs of butter and sides of bacon, a place like Breughel’s Land of Cockaigne. A séance where the host, surrounded by the silent circle of his guests, concentrates for hours, unavailingly, sure he can move a suspended needle by telekinesis. A trip to Russia in 1922, where he was worried that Lenin’s habit of losing the thread of his conversation was like that of his own mad aunt. That trip did not remove ‘the mote I then carried in my eye and through which I had viewed the capitalist world’. When such motes did disappear, outrage faded from his work. If anyone thought Grosz betrayed his talent, or lost his way, he was not going to apologise for it, or even admit it. Like Beerbohm’s cartoons of Young and Old halves meeting, the book shows the confrontation of two unbending spirits.