George Grosz – The Big No – 15th May – 20th June 2015
George Grosz – The Big No
Opening Party: Thursday 14th May 2015 6.30pm – 8.30pm
Exhibition runs from May 15th – June 20th 2015
Tuesday – Saturday 10.30am – 5.30pm
George Grosz was one of the greatest satirical artists of the 20th century. A co-founder of the Berlin Dada group and revolutionary in the 1920s, he made hundreds of drawings depicting the vices and injustices of capitalist society during the Weimar era, many of them published in portfolios by the left wing publisher Malik Verlag. This exhibition presents a selection of images from two of the most powerful: ‘Ecce Homo’, 1923, and ‘Hintergrund’ (‘Background’), 1928.
‘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. The drawings present a monstrous menagerie of Berlin characters, capturing the ugliness and corruption of a society living in the shadow of hyper-inflation and social disorientation, divided between fascism and communism. City streets, workers’ hovels, seedy night bars and brothels reveal beggars, pimps, black marketeers, prostitutes, demobbed soldiers, war invalids and the nouveau-riche performing a decadent dance of death.
‘Ecce Homo’ shows Grosz at the height of his satirical powers. His razor-sharp line anatomises Berlin life with devastating acuity and savage humour. The drawings range from the primitive and graffiti-like, to complex Futuristic street scenes with multiple viewpoints and teeming crowds of overlapping figures, to harshly objective character studies in which every whisker and wrinkle seems to betray a personal vice, and every eye glints with malice or fear.
Shortly after publication in 1923, all available copies of the portfolio were seized by the Berlin police and Grosz and his publisher were prosecuted for obscenity. The Nazis ordered the offending plates and drawings to be destroyed; they were publicly burned in May 1933. In that same year, Grosz emigrated to the USA. While in exile, he was defamed in Germany as a ‘cultural Bolshevik’ and his works featured prominently in the notorious 1937 exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’.
The second small portfolio of seventeen drawings included is ‘Hintergrund’ (‘Background’), published in 1928 on the occasion of Erwin Piscator’s production of the absurdist, anti-war play ‘The Good Soldier Schwejk’. The portfolio was distributed to the audience at the première; the drawings were to be projected onto a big screen above the actors. 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’.
Born from the same society that inspired Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin (on which the film Cabaret was based), these drawings present a caustic view of Germany in the traumatic years of the struggling Weimar Republic.
The Big No derives its title from George Grosz’s autobiography A Little Yes and a Big No. The exhibition is curated by film maker, curator and writer Lutz Becker. It is supported by a book, documentary film footage of Berlin in the 1920s and a down-loadable educational resource focusing on the historical background.
After the artist’s death in 1959 his widow and sons continued to promote his work and in 1964 they licensed the publication of a facsimile edition of the destroyed ‘Ecce Homo’ portfolio which replicates in print and paper quality, as well as in image size, the unsigned Malik edition D of 1923. These are the prints in this exhibition. The ‘Hintergrund’ portfolio is the original edition published in 1928.
The show is a Hayward Touring exhibition organised by the South Bank Centre.
Image: Grosz George, On the Threshold, © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J. /DACS,2015