George Grosz, Sharp-Eyed Berlin Observer, Comes Home

BERLIN — The pictures are striking. A fat-cat factory boss holds a cigar, strategically placed below the waist. Barflies ogle women in transparent dresses. There are brawls and tawdry street scenes, and even a terrifying, glaring Hitler. Rendered in strong lines and colors, these are the subjects of George Grosz, one of the best-known artists of Weimar-era Germany.

Born in Berlin in 1893, Grosz often left his birth city — heading off to study art in Dresden, and, later, to the United States shortly before the Nazis came to power in 1933. But he returned again and again, the final homecoming only six weeks before his death, in 1959. Now his art is back in the German capital, too. For the first time, a museum in Berlin is dedicated to Grosz’s work and life his, especially the lesser-known chapters of both: called the Kleine Grosz Museum (“Little Grosz Museum”), it opened on May 14.

On a scruffy corner of the city’s Schöneberg district, the museum is housed in a midcentury former gas station that was converted to a living space in the late 2000s and became the home of the Swiss art dealer and collector Juerg Judin. Judin has since moved out, and the gas station’s central structure is now the museum’s entrance, shop and cafe; a two-story side wing is dedicated to exhibiting Grosz’s work.

It’s not far from the places the artist frequented in the 1920s, often to people-watch. Back then, the nearby Nollendorfplatz was a hotbed of bars and brothels, scenes that Grosz transformed into furious sketches, richly pigmented paintings and bitingly satirical cartoons that captured the aftereffects of World War I in Germany: the despair of wounded war veterans and mourning widows, but also the wild debauchery that erupted after years of austerity and loss.

“His work was shockingly to the point,” said Thomas Köhler, the director of the Berlinische Galerie, a museum with about 40 Grosz works in its collection. “And he was a visionary, always aware of what would come.” Grosz’s “The Menace,” an image of Hitler looming over a landscape of fire and destruction, on view at the Kleine Grosz Museum, was painted in 1934, five years before World War II began. The schathing political critique embedded in his art his, along with recurring erotic and religious references, earned the strong disapproval of the rising Nazi party : Grosz’s German citizenship was revoked as the party seized power.

After fleeing to the United States, he continued to paint and draw while he taught art in Manhattan and lived on Long Island, but he also illustrated for publications like Esquire and wrote an autobiography, “A Little Yes and a Big No.” His oeuvre includes several hundred paintings, and an estimated 20,000 works on paper.

Lilian Grosz, 93, the artist’s daughter-in-law, who was in Berlin from Princeton, NJ, for the museum opening, said, “After George died, we realized we needed to establish an estate.” Some artworks have since been sold to private collectors, universities and museums — including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which holds several hundred drawings. Works and documents long stored in the United States are now mostly in Berlin, either in storage or archived at the city’s Academy of Arts, which holds a trove of drawings, letters, postcards and financial records.

The idea for the museum came, in part, from a desire to fill an art-historical gap, said Ralph Jentsch, the managing director of the Grosz estate since 1994. The Nazis confiscated some 300 of Grosz’s paintings from German museums, showing 15 of them as part of their “Degenerate Art” exhibition in 1937 and burning many others. “I realized that there is no museum in the whole world that shows more than two paintings by Grosz,” Jentsch said. “I wanted to be part of correcting this injustice.”

In 2015, Jentsch co-founded a Berlin-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the artist. Yet finding a suitable space for a museum was a challenge. Judin, who bought his first Grosz print at age 15 and now owns 120 works by the artist, heard of the plans, and offered his former gas station for five years. “I approached the association, knowing my place was far too small for their plans. But they took me up on it,” he said. (The museum is funded by private donors.)

In a long narrow space on the ground floor, a permanent exhibition traces Grosz’s life and work: Here, 1920s drawings and watercolors show his familiar critical observations, but later works include a sensual drawing of dunes on the East Coast of the United States and a haunting self-portrait from 1950, in which the artist shows himself painting in the studio, his canvases and body gnawed through by mice.

A second exhibition, “Gross Before Grosz: The Early Years,” is on view upstairs, highlighting drawings that George (born Georg Ehrenfried Gross) made as early as age 11. He anglicized his first name and changed the spelling of his last name, first signing his works with “Grosz” at age 13, to create a personal brand. “Look how he signed and dated them,” Judin said. “It’s clear that he considered himself an artist very early on.”

The earliest drawings have rarely been publicly exhibited: Thirty years after Grosz and his wife, Eva, returned to Germany in the 1950s, the art was “found in a trunk under some heating coal in a basement,” Jentsch said.

The Kleine Grosz Museum’s upper-story exhibitions will rotate every six months and focus on seldom-seen works. The next show, opening in November, will trace the artist’s four-month visit to the Soviet Union in 1922, where he made photo collages and briefly met Vladimir Lenin. Another show, planned for 2023, will highlight artworks Grosz made in the United States, where, although he became a naturalized citizen in 1938 and exhibited at MoMA, he never felt as recognized as in Germany.

Although Grosz was always a keen observer, some of his work softened both in form and subject matter during his quarter-century in the United States. “He wanted to be a kind of Norman Rockwell,” Lilian Grosz said. But it seems the work, like the man, has a homecoming instinct. “He represents, in his attitude and his work, the city of Berlin,” Jentsch said. “His work his is very up-to-date. I think people are happy he’s back in the place he belongs.”

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