My Daily Art Display today is a painting by the German painter George Grosz. He was born in Berlin in 1893. His father died when he was eight years of age and his mother moved to the Pomeranian town of Stolp. It was here that George attended weekly drawing classes. At the age of sixteen he went to the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts and remained there for two years before moving to the Berlin College of Arts.
In 1914 at the onset of World War I he volunteered for military service. His military life lasted less than a year being discharged on medical grounds for sinusitis. In 1919 he joined the Communist Party of Germany but his loathing of any sort of dictatorial authority whether it was left wing or right wing was abhorrent to him and so he resigned. The early 1930’s saw the rise of the Nazi Party and George Grosz found this faction extremely repugnant and so in 1933 he and his family emigrated to America where he became a naturalised citizen five years later. He enjoyed the American way of life and took up a number of art jobs and exhibited his works on a regular basis. He always intended to return to his homeland one day and that day came in 1959 when he went back to Berlin somewhat disillusioned with American life. Sadly he died there shortly after his return when he fell down a flight of stairs. His death came three weeks before his sixty-sixth birthday.
Today’s painting is entitled The Pillars of Society and was completed in 1926 and can be found at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. It is a deeply sarcastic portrait of the German elite classes who supported Fascism. Like many of his paintings of this era it satirized what he believed was the corrupt and bourgeois society of Germany. In this painting Grosz uses his skills as a caricaturist to produce vivid, grotesque, nightmarish, portrayals of those who controlled society. Businessmen, clergy and generals, are all portrayed not as the polished, fine, refined gentlemen of Academy art, but as vicious, selfish, and uncaring individuals. Grosz was a leading figure of the Neue Sachlikeit (New Objectivity) Movement which reflected the resignation and cynicism of the post-war period and it used violent satire to depict the face of evil. The name of the painting, The Pillar of Society, derived from a play of that name by Henrik Ibsen.
In the painting we can see four main characters. In the foreground we have the old beer-drinking aristocrat with his head full of the pageant of war with a dueling scar on his left cheek and a swastika on his necktie. In one hand he holds a glass of beer and in the other a foil. His monocle is opaque and he has difficulty in seeing. His skull is open and from it rises a war-horse. On the left of the picture stands the journalist, Alfred Hugenberg with a chamber pot on his head, symbolizing his lack of intelligence, clasping newspapers in one hand and a bloodied palm branch in the other. On the right hand side we have a Social Democrat, probably a caricature of Friedrich Ebert, the German president, holding a flag and a socialist, pamphlet stating “Socialism must work”, with his head opened to expose a steaming pile of dung. Behind these three characters is a pro-Nazi clergyman, bloated and preaching peace, choosing to ignore the murderous actions of the military seen in the background. Through the windows we can see the city in flames and in the background chaos reigns unchecked. For George Grosz the instructions given to the brainless politicians came from the military, the clergy and the press all of whom he believed to be amoral and lacking integrity and were despised by him.