George Grosz – The Nude

(Text to exhibition A71 from 13.5. until 23.9.06)

The exhibition Paintings of the Nude at the Walker Galleries in New York in 1941 seems to have been the only monographic treatment of the nude in the oeuvre of George Grosz. None of the literature on George Grosz deals specifically with the nude. General literature makes mention of Grosz neither with reference to the nude in general nor with reference to the nude in modernity. This is highly astonishing, for the nude has an extremely important part to play in the oeuvre of George Grosz, both as an autonomous theme and in the context of larger compositions. Indeed, George Grosz's nudes were the object of deep interest, and not least in the USA, where this interest not only marked the beginning of George Grosz's years in America but also saved him from the Nazis, for in 1932 the Art Students' League of New York invited him teach in their nude class1, and Grosz did just that until 1958, though with little enthusiasm during the latter years.

In those works of George Grosz that are devoted to his principal theme of the aggressive and exploited human being, the woman is almost always naked, defenceless, offering herself to the male aggressor, selling herself, ultimately becoming the sex murderer's victim.  Some of the resulting scenes were, and still are, generally considered "pornographic".  It was these "orgiastic" compositions alone – both the socially critical ones and those of a more private nature – that were the subject of Kathrin Hoffmann-Curtius's catalogue essay, Erotik im Blick des George Grosz, written in 1995.2 In our exhibition and in this catalogue, on the other hand, we are concerned purely with the discrete theme of the female nude as it appeared in George Grosz's oeuvre during the years between the first, soberly academic nude drawings made at the School of Arts and Crafts in Berlin in 1912 and those of the hot summers of the 1940s on Cape Cod, where in its languid dunes the beloved human body was to become so excitingly natural.

Grosz's nudes manifest several precisely distinguishable stages of development.  During his period of study at the Academy of Art in Dresden from 1909 until 1911, Grosz seems to have been totally disinterested in the nude. He saw himself rather as an illustrator and, like so many of his contemporaries who were later to become highly renowned painters, loved caricature. Nonetheless, the modelling technique of his first nudes of 1912 (Cat. 1-10) still clearly betray the influence of his teacher, Richard MĂĽller.  The epochal events that were taking place in the "BrĂĽcke" studios and on the shores of the Moritzburg Lakes during his three years in Dresden had no effect on Grosz.  After having moved to Berlin in 1912 and having spent a year studying there at the School of Arts and Crafts with Emil Orlik, the modelling in his nude drawings in 1912 and 1913 was reduced to just a few narrow hatchings (Cat. 11-18) in pencil, red chalk crayon or pen-and-ink.  For the latter he normally used black drawing ink, but he also worked in sepia or blue ink, occasionally brush washed.  Autonomous nude depictions in colour, as watercolours or oil paintings, did not begin to evolve until the late 1920s. Initially, from 1913 onwards, Grosz's nudes developed towards coherent compositions along similar lines to those of his drawings as we know them (Cat. 21-28).  Some of the physiognomies of his models are clearly detailed (Cat. 29-32), but in 1914 he totally waived the interior details of the heads of his nudes, which were now shaped roughly like an egg, as in his "mechanical/constructivist" paintings of 1920.  The use of hatching for modelling had now been completely abandoned, and the ever less frequent shading was now achieved with broad chalk or wash.  Heads and limbs would now frequently be missing – indeed, between 1914 and 1917, his preferred theme was the torso.  Like Kirchner, George Grosz could neither understand nor come to terms with war and military service. In his case, too, the schizophrenic situation in which he found himself drove him into a mental hospital.

George Grosz met Eva Peter in 1918 through Emil Orlik.3  They married in 1920 and remained soul mates until George Grosz's death in Berlin in 1959.  Grosz's nude drawings were now given faces once again.  Not immediately, but mostly, the faces belonged to Eva.

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Very possibly she was his model for his frontispiece design – "Nude" – of 1921 (vignette, p. 1).  Around 1925, the representation of the nude in Grosz's oeuvre assumed a new dimension: he began to paint again.  He had been painting only periodically, as Ralph Rentsch mentions on various occasions4, but then Eva's sister, Lotte Schmalhausen, appeared in his Berlin studio. In his painting of Lotte, Woman Sitting of 19265, Grosz's treatment of the details is painterly in the true sense of the word. Lotte was probably the jollier and less inhibited of the two sisters, and it was possibly she who persuaded Eva to be more generous about making her body available to the studio, which had now become the "boudoir".  What brought it all about in the first place can no longer be said for sure.  At any rate, the large-format nude had now found its way into Grosz's painting, as in The Model – Self-portrait with Model of 19286, in which Lotte now makes her appearance completely undressed. Even before then, the relationship between man and woman, even as a general theme, as in Married Couple – Man and Woman of 19267, was operating on a different level than that of sexual exploitation and oppression.  Grosz's drawings of 1927-29 (Cat. 69-76), alongside further watercolours and oil paintings, pave the way for the main work of this period, namely Two Nudes – Two Women of 1929 (Cat. 77), a great painting, not just in terms of its dimensions, which certainly captures the atmosphere of Grosz's studio.  The wonderfully ample bodies of the two sisters hover in space with other objects of the studio, as though everything is a dream. That this might indeed have been what the artist meant to convey is intimated, in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting, by the encrypted representation of a male reaction to these hovering beauties.

After being forced to abandon life in the old world of Berlin and having had to come to terms with a new world in New York, George Grosz again took up the theme of the nude in 1936-37 with a programmatic painting, Self-portrait with Nude (Cat. 78f.). This painting of the mutually scrutinizing artist and model marks the beginning of a homage to Eva in the studio and to Eva in the dunes of Cape Cod (Cat. 82-103), where Grosz spent the summer months with her.

Writing his autobiography in 1945, George Grosz gives a detailed acount of an experience in his youth that left its mark on him for the rest of his life. At the age of 14, quite by chance, he became a voyeur, at first unwillingly, but in the end willingly.  He found himself watching a then 38-year old woman undressing herself, completely oblivious of all around her, slowly and narcissistically peeling off her clothes, gradually but unconsciously approaching the dramatic climax, a perfect yet unintentional striptease, a performance of a naturalness that one would hardly ever witness on a stage.  Grosz describes everything, every detail, above all the round, voluptuous contours of her body. For a 14-year-old, the body of a 38-year-old woman may indeed have seemed rather mature, but whilst it was an experience of his early youth, just on the threshold of manhood, it is obvious that Grosz is describing it not through the eyes a 14-year-old but through those of a man of over fifty looking back in time.  Grosz's nudes of the 1940s could in fact have been illustrations of this passage in Grosz's memoirs.9  He draws his comparisons, too, from the then-present, alluding to the dunes of Cape Cod and concluding: "The image of the naked, Rubenesque woman pursued me and to this day I have not been able to get over this first impression. Nor have I wished to get over it.  The image remained hung in my mind for a long time. That is, it is still hanging there, and later I was able to apply it to life. And when I paint today, I still see that image in the lamp-lit room. It was as though somebody, whom I did not know, had shown me a symbol, something eternal – for as long as we exist, there will always be the symbol of nakedness: the woman as the immortal source and perpetuation of our species." Another Dadaist summed up this recognition in one of his mottoistic titles: "The nakedness of the woman is wiser than the teachings of the philosopher" (Max Ernst, 1962).  It was with visionary foresight that Harry Graf Kessler already recognized this aspect of George Grosz's personality and oeuvre in an entry made in his diary on 7th July 1922 after having paid a visit to George Grosz: "His entire art is, in its exclusive cult of the ugliness of German philistinism, the very reverse of the

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medal, so to speak, of some secret ideal of beauty that Grosz cherishes, indeed modestly conceals. He draws and shows and pursues with fanatical hatred the very opposite of what he carries within himself and guards like something sacred. His entire art is a fight to the death against this opposite of his hidden ideals, his secret 'fair lady'; instead of courting her like a Minnesinger, he fights endless battles against her opponents with the unsparing rage of an obsessed crusader."10 But, as we have seen, he did court her!  Notwithstanding Harry Graf Kessler's astute observations, Ralph Jentsch's view that Grosz, "[...] in spite of his deep contempt for humanity, was in the final analysis a great humanist" has here been further corroborated.

Wolfgang Henze

(Translated by John Brogden, Dortmund)

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1 George Grosz: Ein kleines Ja und ein grosses Nein. Sein Leben von ihm selbst erzählt. Hamburg 1955, p. 221.

2 George Grosz. Berlin-New York. Exhibition catalogue. Edited by Peter-Klaus Schuster.  Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie, and DĂĽsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1995, pp. 183-191.

3 See Note 1, p. 177.

4 See Note 2, pp. 535-557.

5 See Note 2, colour plate, p. 341.

6 See Note 2, colour plate, p. 357.

7 See Note 2, colour plate, p. 349.

8 See Note 2, Nr. IX. 46, p. 362.

9 See Note 1, pp. 32-35.

10 Quoted, in translation from: Ralph Jentsch: Der Oeuvre-katalog der Gemälde, in: See Note 2, p. 314.

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