Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Things I understand with age

George Grosz at work
During my year in Germany, when I studied in an antiquated building whose most memorable feature was its herringbone parquet floors, I spent a lot of time in the Art History Department's library. I pulled out tomes, translated chapters, and made copies enough to fill several three-ring binders, which I eventually shipped home via the now defunct "Seepost". All of this activity got me closer to learning who George Grosz really was.

Of course, I knew who he was. His drawing, "Fit for Active Service", had been in my mother's college text, H.H. Arnason's History of Modern Art, along with a color plate of the painting, "Pillars of Society." (Arnason's book became something close to a sacred volume for me. I look at it constantly. I once knew the order of the page imagery by heart.) And yet, I did not understand what made Grosz, the man, tick. I felt this was necessary, since I had chosen him as the subject of my thesis. During my first few months at LMU, I made an appointment with a professor in Art History Department and indicated, in my then uncertain German that I wanted to study Max Beckmann. She said, "You will find it difficult to do any original research on Beckman. So many people have already written about him. Why don't you do your paper on someone like...oh, say, George Grosz?"

Why not, indeed. The previous year, I had deferred my Master's Degree at Pitt in order to come to Germany, and I had already met with my future thesis advisor. She was a George Grosz scholar, perhaps one of the most prominent Grosz scholars. I had no misgivings about entering her turf, although some fellow graduate students later questioned my sanity. When I returned home, she and I carved up Grosz' life like it was steak. She got the 19-teens, 20s and early 30s; I got his emigree legacy. And ultimately, I tied Grosz's legacy to another artist, Romare Bearden, Grosz's student at the Arts Students League. But that's another story for another time.

So, the first Grosz I got to know was the Grosz of Second Reich and Weimar-era Germany--the Grosz whose manifestos I read in my apartment at Moosacherstrasse 81. Here was the Grosz of Dada, of Neue Sachlickeit, the Grosz who spent time with John Heartfield and wrote disgustingly boastful journal entries about his sexual exploits with girlfriend (and later, wife) Eva. Also, I got to know the slightly older Grosz who had a sincere commitment to Communism until he saw its realities in Russia. And then there was the Grosz of the blasphemy trials.

Here, as an aside, I should probably mention that before the story collection American Soma took the name of the principal story (a decision James made, and I don't disgree with), the collection was called Behold! Mankind. Why? Because it is the rough translation of George Grosz's portfolio satirizing mankind's immorality. (I intended no allusion to either Pilate or Nietzsche, only Grosz.)  Ecce Homo, published by Malik Verlag in 1923, was what landed Grosz in trouble with the authorities and, eventually, in court. Because American Soma offered small portraits of man's weaknesses, I felt there was a parallel in spirit and message.  (Also, if you read the story "Movie Star" in my first book, The Famous and The Anonymous, George Grosz appears as a character. I try to fit him into each fiction compilation because Grosz is my literary version of 'Nina'.)
George Grosz, "The Retreat" 1946
Back when I was in Munich, I was young (22 and then 23), determined, not easily daunted. I drank alot, and I saw in Grosz the nihilst, the rabble-rouser, the person who stirred dissent because he was young and prone to rebellion. I recognized a little of myself. 

When I got back to America, I began to discover a different Grosz, a disillusioned man, whose attempts to get away from his highly politicized past were met with criticism. Malcolm Cowley, who reviewed an exhibition of Grosz's American paintings for The Nation in the 1940s, castigated the artist for his decidedly apolitical tenor, for his tepid Cape Cod sand dunes, his comparatively academic nudes. Where, Cowley wanted to know, was the satirist? He was needed now more than ever. Apart from a few images representing the "haves" and the "have nots", Grosz abandoned social issues. 

I couldn't see it when I was 23 and 24, but I understand at 37 that Grosz was a haunted man, a broken man, as evinced by paintings like "The Retreat" of 1946. And knowing about the prescient dream he had in late 1932 that caused him to pack up his home and family and flee Germany before Hitler ascended to the position of Reichschancelor in 1933, it's easy to understand his pessimism. He had already seen that, ultimately, Stalin was little different than Hitler, something he revealed in a drawing appearing in the 1936 portfolio Interregnum. Ultimately, he resigned himself to the realization that man was so bogged down by weakness, desire, and corruption that he could never hope to achieve an equitable social or political system.

Malcolm Cowley, who castigated Grosz for
the artist's apoliticism in America
Why Cowley could not appreciate this, I'm not sure. Perhaps he was himself still an idealist. Perhaps he felt a man could not, or should not change. Grosz's attention to aesthetics over content was a conscious turn away from that which he knew could not be fixed. No amount of propaganda or artistic dissent would change the fundamental, corruptible nature of man. Ecce Homo indeed. Here, it seems, is the disappointing truth about man. Grosz knew this, and it is, I would wager, what contributed to his heavy drinking and, ultimately, his drink-related death.

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