George Grosz & Philip Evergood: Radical views (1998)
artdesigncafé - art | 11 March 2010
This essay was previously published in a catalogue accompanying the exhibition Radical views at Forum Gallery, New York, 17 January - 21 February 1998.
George Grosz & Philip Evergood: Radical views
Remarkable similarities exist between George Grosz and Philip Evergood, not only were there similarities in their characters and susceptible to the same pitfalls and career cycles but also astonishing similarities in style. A biographic overview of each artists reveals many parallels in their life experience.
George Grosz was born in 1893 the youngest child and only boy of three children. Grosz’ father died leaving the impoverished family to move back to the poorest neighborhood in Berlin. Grosz’ mother unable to make a living as a seamstress, became cook and housekeeper in the Prussian military’s elite regiment in a provincial German town where she provided security for her family, with housing and expenses covered. The young Grosz became fascinated with the world beyond Stolp that he heard of from soldiers that he met. His youthful voyeurism provided the young Grosz with an appreciation and taste for the “high life” which he read about, but more importantly, observed from his hiding places within the regiment. He was impressed by the suave manners and appearance of the officers at their parties philandering and drinking champagne. He was at this time supplied with his earliest erotic experiences. Additionally, his fascination with all sorts of horrific stories— voraciously reading books that described all manners of cruelties— would become subject matter for his entire life. Even in Stolp, he found his way to pubs and was struck by the freshness in the obscene drawings on toilet walls and mirrors, interest in caricature and earliest training in history painting are to appear throughout his career work. Grosz was expelled from school at 14 for assaulting a teacher. The expulsion closed down all of Grosz’s opportunities to education and career. Forced to choose, Grosz decided to become an artist and against his mother’s hopes and expectations began studying drawing locally. Grosz having been impressed by his surroundings had set his goals on being a painter of military genre scenes. He received early encouragement from his drawing teacher and was urged to prepare for admission to the art academy in Dresden.
Upon his acceptance, the 16-year-old George Grosz applied himself to the rigors of the academic training. Having made friends with fellow students, his artistic world opened wider than the limited scope of the Academy. He was introduced to the mystical and fantastic work of Gustav Meyrinck which appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities. He was also introduced to the work of the French Post-Impressionists and contemporary German painters of the De Brucke and Blaue Reiter groups as well as other artists with strong expressive qualities such as Van Gogh and Munch. Of course the young artists became involved in discussions that revealed Grosz as a skeptic, not becoming immersed in contemporary fads for the spiritual literature or philosophy. His work at that time focused on drawing and caricature having abandoned the academic and pedantic subject matter in history painting.
In 1912, George Grosz moved to Berlin to peruse a career as a caricaturist. He showed a remarkable interest in urban subject matter with proletarian leanings— spending his time drawing tramps and brothel interiors. His work demonstrated his fascination with decadence and a strong influence of Daumier. After two years in Berlin he moved to Paris briefly to study at the Academy Colarossi. Paris provided Grosz with the cafes, music halls, and street life to indulge in his passion for people-watching. He considered himself and those he was attracted to on the outskirts of bourgeois society. He was deeply drawn to and amused by freakish behavior and retained an inventory of “absurdities” in observing human nature and identified with outward manifestations of mental disturbances. Several months after his return to Berlin, Grosz enlists in the army fighting at the Western Front briefly. He was honorably discharged and returned to Berlin elated and realizing that his impulses were developing against national patriotism. Grosz’s drawings at this time are energized chronicles of the modern industrial city. Grosz develops “alternative” persona with invented names that he uses to refer to himself throughout his life. Just months after Grosz’ discharge in May 1915, he takes an activist position in opposition to the war and becomes increasingly outspoken in his disdain for German patriotism. Grosz’ view of humanity becomes increasingly jaundiced - observing the major motivations to be basest satisfaction of desire for food, power, money and sex. In the meantime Grosz holds a youthful optimism for his adventure and his image of America which he paints and writes poetry about.
At 24 he attains some recognition with the publication of his drawings and poetry through his association and fast friendship with pacifist brothers poet Wieland and painter and graphic designer Helmut Herzfeld. This leads to the founding of Die Neue Jugend. The literary magazine was primarily intended to promote the peace initiative. Grosz, suffering with growing Anti-German feelings, adds an “e” to his first name to anglicize it. Following the same form, Helmut Herzfeld takes the name John Heartfield as reaction to the growing German hate campaign against England. Publication of Die Neue Jugend makes for widespread distribution and attention to Grosz’ work. Grosz was conscripted into the army in December 1916 and suffered an emotional breakdown for which he was hospitalized the day after he reported to the regiment. During his four month hospitalization, he invented a Dada photomontage form made from newspaper and magazine cutouts. Upon his release, Grosz begins to work in a Futurist style that expresses his vitality and enthusiasm for urban life.
Although the formation of the Weimar Republic in November 1918 brought an enthusiastic response from artists and writers, they, and George Grosz in particular, also were encouraged by the results of their didactic art and continued with political and social commentary. Along with Herzfeld and Heartfield, Grosz joined the Communist party on December 31, 1919 feeling stronger than ever that the making of art is not free from ideology. About this time Grosz develops his “mechanical” style aligning himself with socialist workers. In this style which is related to the Dada collages, Grosz suppresses his expressive hand in favor of hard-edge geometric line.
George Grosz becomes reacquainted with the Peter sisters, artist Eva and photographer Lotte. Grosz marries Eva in 1920, and Lotte eventually marries Grosz’ close friend, Otto Schmalhausen.
Also in 1920, George Grosz along with Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield organized the First International Dada Fair (an outgrowth of their Club Dada) His portfolio Got mit uns (God is on our side) is confiscated by the police. In the first of several trials to follow, Grosz and the others were tried and convicted of slandering the police. Other trials throughout the decade include obscenity and blasphemy charges. Grosz enjoys extraordinary success in the sales of some lithographic portfolio whose content addresses all of his concerns from hypocrisy in religion to sex, war and social struggle. The 1920s provide ample opportunities for Grosz to show his work in many galleries throughout Germany and abroad. Recognition and demand for his work moves Grosz into painting more frequently in oils. The washes in his watercolors develop a softer more billowing form that is closely related to the paintings open form. Even with modest success, Grosz and his family still eke out a meager existence.
In 1933 the Art Students League in New York invited George Grosz to teach for two seasons. At the strong encouragement of art dealer émigré J.B. Neumann to come to the United States, Grosz accepted the teaching post. (Neumann, however, was not enthusiastic about the Art Students League thinking that Grosz “deserved better”.) Ultimately, Neumann organized a school where Grosz and Maurice Sterne would teach and Neumann was director. Anxious to become an “American artist” Grosz files naturalization papers in the spring of 1933, six months prior to moving his family to New York. Although Grosz was happy living in America he was having difficulty earning a living. He found that magazines and journals found his illustrations “too German” and was asked to soften his acerbic tone. In an effort to guarantee income Grosz would return to teaching throughout the rest of his life either at his own school or Art Students League.
George Grosz’ work became fantastic and apocalyptic with essences of sharp warning. He was often celebrated, profiled and honored with fellowships and awards, however the years in America where punctuated with deep depression and alcoholism. Having decided to return to Germany, Grosz and Eva moved to Berlin. Celebrating his return to Germany with friends, he returned home drunk, fell down a flight of stairs and died.