First World War

Ecce Homo

The artist George Grosz was nearly twice murdered by the German authorities in his own Berlin studio. During the Communist uprising in January 1919 Freikorps troops burst in looking to arrest him (John Heartfield, his friend the artist- publisher, had already been taken to be tortured), but using forged identity papers Grosz escaped and went into hiding. Fourteen years later on 31st January 1933, the day after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Nazi storm-troopers smashed down his studio door with axes seeking him. But he had already left for the United States, a few days earlier on 12th January 1933, with his wife. Creating art can be a dangerous activity. The most effective form of censorship, said George Bernard Shaw, is assassination.

By the time the First World War started in August 1914 Grosz, aged 21, had conscientiously completed his studies at the Dresden School of Art, spent an inoffensive year training in Paris in 1913, and was back in Berlin drawing and studying under Emil Orlik. Grosz was an artist not a soldier and a humanist who did not identify with the war, nor the army, nor the Kaiser’s aims. He was not like others intoxicated with war fever, but to avoid compulsory conscription and to do his duty he volunteered and joined the German infantry as a private.

By 1916 Private Grosz had been discharged from the front on health grounds (meningitis) and was back in a cold and grey Berlin drawing in a simplified style that depicted the urban reality of those war years. The war had been initially welcomed by idealists for its cleansing effect; but it was a sponge, to wipe the slate clean, soaked in blood. From the start Grosz quickly found war was filth, lice, stupor, disease, mutilation, emptiness, disgust and horror. His pent up rage, accumulated in these early war years found expression in art produced in his small studio on his return to the city. His sharp pen-stroke eliminated the expressive gesture and made the figures impersonal. He depicted prototypes, recognisable as representatives of a social class: priests, army officers, professors, petit-bourgeois businessmen, government officials, prostitutes and more, in poses that simultaneously revealed their interior and exterior life. He drew the victims of war and those who had gained from it. He drew men vomiting, men cursing the moon, a murderer sitting on a packing case with the murdered woman’s body inside, lonely men running crazily through empty streets in flight from unknown horrors, a man washing his blood-stained hands, a man hanging from a crossbar of a window surrounded by buzzing flies, soldiers without noses and metal arms like crab claws, a colonel with an open fly embracing a fat nurse, a skeleton in uniform being examined for military fitness… He examined in a new graphic language with its own pictorial logic, and with apocalyptic force, the comic tragedy of the zeitgeist. It is said that unsparingness (Schonungslosigkeit) is a German virtue. He exposed moribund class hierarchies and militarism with its absurd jingoism. He rejected every relic of the old society and the formal academic art in which he had been trained before the war. He returned a shattered man to a shattered city, became the paradigm of the young artist home from the war full of energy and anger, and used his black lines on canvas as a sign of his control over death. These images later collected into a portfolio Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) in 1923, of 16 paintings and 84 drawings, became his masterpiece.

During 1916 (whilst the Battle of the Somme was fought between July and November) Grosz banded together in the city with like-minded artists, writers and poets on leave from the front, or protected from conscription by age or Swiss passports or insanity, and protested against the war. He befriended Helmut Herzfelde, an artist and publisher, who had avoided military service by faking a mental breakdown on the day he was due to be sent to the front. After months in an asylum he was assigned to postal duties, where he tossed much of the mail he was due to deliver into bins. Another friendship formed that year was with Joannes Baader, an architect, who had managed to procure a certificate stating that he was legally insane, a document that prevented his arrest for avoiding conscription. Harzfelde started the publishing house Malik-Verlag in 1916 and published anti-war prose accompanied by the drawings of Grosz, that no other publisher would dare print. The xenophobia unleashed by the war was typified by the anti-English hate-filled song Gott Strafe England (May God punish England) by Hans Lissauer, sung on the streets of Berlin that year. God, however, elected to punish soldiers of every country at that time; one million British, French and German soldiers died at the Somme alone. In protest George Groß (as his name was then spelt) and Helmut Harzfelde anglicised their names to George Grosz and John Heartfield and deliberately and provocatively spoke English, the language of the enemy. One morning in May 1916 the two, whether in English or German, invented an influential technique known as photo-montage, many completed pieces jointly signed. These montages and collages were a chaotic juxtaposition of fragmentary photographs and slogans that emphasised the arbitrary and the contradictory, the absurd and the coincidental.

By mid-1917 Grosz, was re-conscripted into the army. He was required to train recruits and transport prisoners of war. One night he suffered an amnesiac fit and severe mental breakdown and was found unconscious semi-buried in a latrine. He was taken to a military hospital where because of the privations of a country losing the war, he and his fellow patients were fed dried vegetables, coffee made from turnips and grey-green bread spread with artificial luminous honey. Their stomach walls were disintegrating and all had lice. The winter of 1917 was one of the worst in European history and became in Germany known as the ‘Turnip Winter’. Grosz’ nerves had burst but he was summarily declared one day to be well enough to return to military duties. He revolted and attacked the medical sergeant; in return he was severely beaten by the orderlies and set to be executed as a deserter. Friends of his intervened and had him sent for psychiatric treatment at a mental hospital for war casualties. He was discharged just before the end of the war and returned to his studio in Berlin.

On the abdication of the Kaiser on 9th November 1918, two days before the armistice, a new Government formed under the socialist Chancellor Friedrich Ebert. Thousands of demobbed soldiers returned brutalised by years of trench warfare to hunger and unemployment; a defeated army returning to eke out a naked existence, in a city where starvation was rife. Many of the returning troops could not live without authority and joined the counter-revolutionary Freikorps militia. The left wing party of Spartacists became the German Communist Party in the dying days of 1918 and called a general strike. The new, and weak Government, gave the Freikorps troops an unbridled hand to suppress the uprising and many Spartacists were killed mercilessly, their leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht assassinated. Grosz’ studio in January 1919 was raided by wild Freikorps troops in search of this artistic critic of the Imperial army and the ruling class. He used forged identity papers to ensure his escape from them, and thereafter lived in different houses night after night as a fugitive.

The war had been prosecuted by the pathological for goals that were irrational but it was Baader, Herzfeld and Grosz who had needed to be certified insane to avoid conscription. The post-war politics compounded absurdity: a socialist government (under Ebert) conspired with the right-wing military (Freikorps) to suppress workers pursuing genuine socialist reforms (Sparticists). Grosz had an ironic and satirical caste of mind, which is a temper profoundly resistant to convention, dishonesty and oppression. Irony is a repost in an absurd world. It is not surprising that Grosz enthusiastically joined the Dada movement, imported into Berlin in 1919 by Richard Huelsenbeck from Zurich. Dada was the quintessential exposer of the absurdity of war, and the culture that had led to the conditions that had produced it, and was critical of complicit artists and intellectuals who had either glorified the fighting or retreated into purely artistic concerns. Wieland Herzfelde (Heartfield’s brother) wrote later “Dada was not an ideological movement, but an organic product that arose as a reaction to the head-in-the-clouds tendencies of so-called holy art.” Grosz’ drawings and photomontages were an assault not only on warmongers, but the rarefied world of academic, holy and classical art. Dada was an attack on the old culture, language and attitudes, and had a philosophy of life that revealed how to stoically withstand absurdity and embrace the arbitrary. Irony is accused of being non-political by the political (the Communists argued that Dada did nothing for the proletariat), but it is an implacable deflator of politics. It finds a target in all ideologies because it mistrusts all large claims and grand narratives and its guns are pointed in every direction.

The climax of Berlin Dada was the First International Dada Fair held at Gallery Burchard in the summer of 1920, organised by Grosz, Heartfield and Raoul Housmann. Grosz’ paintings and drawings displayed his bitter satires of the army’s participation in the Freikorps conspiracy and murders. Suspended from the ceiling was the ‘Prussian Archangel’ a pig-faced figure stuffed into the uniform of a German officer, by Heartfield. Authority does not welcome mockery and the army moved in with the police and confiscated the portfolios and printing plates. Grosz was prosecuted for ‘slandering the armed forces’. The prosecutor pleaded for a prison sentence but Grosz was ordered to pay a fine of 900 marks. This was the first of three prosecutions of Grosz for his drawings in in 1920s.

In 1923, when many of the images were published in the portfolio, Ecce Homo, Grosz stood trial again, this time for the ‘circulation of obscene images’. The prosecution relied on 22 images as ‘indecent representations which offend the sense of modesty and morality of a person of normal feeling’. In 1924 Grosz was fined 500 gold marks, the prints were confiscated and destroyed.

A third prosecution followed in 1928 when Grosz’ friend Erwin Piscator produced on the stage a version of Jaroslav Hasek’s great anti-war novel The Good Soldier Svelk. It was adapted by Piscator, Bertold Brecht and Grosz (Die Abenteuer des bravan Soldaten Schewjk) from the Czech novel published in 1921-22. The novel is an ironic tale of an ingénue soldier in the Austrian army during the First World War who bumbles around exposing the stupidity of military officers, army medics, judges, army spies, clerics and others he meets. Svejk was a satirical cult figure throughout Europe, following publication of the novel, and Grosz regarded his naïve and playful exposure of his earnest authoritarian antagonists as a form of Dada. He identified with the kindly hero who struggled to survive the war’s many humiliations. Grosz designed the sets, painted a series of pictures to accompany the production (Hintergrund) and made a short film/montage that was back-projected onto a screen behind the actors during the performance. On the occasion of the play’s premier in November 1928, to commemorate the end of the war ten years earlier, Malik-Verlag published the portfolio Hintergrund. One recurring device, the S-shaped paragraph sign used in German legal documents, ensnares character like a hanging rope. The play and film had passed the censor, but the portfolio (particularly an image of the crucified Christ wearing a gas-mask and military boots and another of a preacher dispensing bullets from his mouth) resulted in a prosecution of Grosz for “profanity and slander of establishments of the Christian Church”. The case dragged on for four years, the longest blasphemy trial in German history, until 1932 when Grosz was acquitted. A year later Nazi storm-troopers broke their way into his studio, with axes, hoping to succeed in censorship where the law had failed.

After Grosz left the country for the United States in 1933, as the Nazis swept to power, he was stripped of his German citizenship. In 1937 many of his paintings were displayed by the Nazis at the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition, after which most were destroyed. He spent the rest of his life in America, undervalued and impecunious and died in 1959. In countries where what an artist says is of public moment, they are censored, imprisoned or silenced. Where freedom of expression prevails the artist is usually of little public importance. In an interview in the United States in 1942 he was asked why he had left his homeland. He replied “I left because of Hitler. He is a painter too, you know, and there didn’t seem to be room for both of us in Germany.”


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