In Focus

George Grosz and America

Even as George Grosz was first establishing himself as a subversive critic of Germany's political and social elites, he reformulated his childhood fantasies of America into a place of psychic escape from modern German society. As early as 1916, he hinted that "it is...not such an offhand, romantic idea that henceforth the childish dream of expatriating to America, the victorious land of billionaires, should find its way more and more into my daily thoughts." America was a place of desire and adventure to Grosz, and it took hold in his imagination as a kind of release valve from the wartime pressures of contemporary Europe, and later as a political haven from the rising tide of fascism.

Grosz was not alone in his preoccupation with America. Like many of his fellow artists, Grosz had grown up in a culture rife with romanticized depictions of American life, particularly of the American West. Grosz's favorite books as a child were the frontier novels of James Fenimore Cooper and their German imitations by Karl May. Cowboys, Indians, trappers, miners, and frontiersman made their appearances regularly in Grosz's drawings and paintings and also in his love of costuming and masquerade.

When Grosz first visited New York in 1932, he narrated his experiences of the city through this fictional lens, finding in Manhattan a modern echo of the tales he had consumed so avidly in Germany: "Golddigger atmosphere—here it still exists, the concealed saloon world of adventurers, uninhibited fortune seekers. It is something barbarian." Grosz's words ring with naive wonder, but more telling is his implied comparison to the true barbarism he had left behind in Germany. Grosz saw in the "saloon world" of the American frontier a humane refuge from the waxing militarism of Germany on the eve of Hitler's rise to power.

Grosz's flight from Germany the following year did not insulate him from the encroaching chill of war. Alive to the political circumstances in which he found himself, Grosz made a show of abandoning the political engagement of his earlier work in favor of a new "humanisme," as he termed it, and a new subject matter: city views of Manhattan, Cape Cod landscapes, and nudes. This new subject matter, together with Grosz's dogged refusal to assist in any activities that he saw as merely propogandistic or motivated by party interest, struck many of his old Berlin circle as a retreat. Grosz had become disenchanted with communism by the mid-1920s, following his visit to the Soviet Union, but he had remained nonetheless a committed opponent to the rise of the radical right and a far-seeing critic of Hitler. In America, however, he began to espouse a more absolute apoliticism and a more sweeping rejection of politcal satire as a viable artistic language.

Excerpt from

Heather MacDonald, Flower of the Prairie: George Grosz in Dallas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2012), 22-23