THE BEST drawings of George Grosz are those that are most evil. The drawings that he made in Berlin in the '20s - of fat-necked bourgeois merchants, thick-thighed whores, workers, Nazis - are too fine to be ugly. Instead they have about them a chilling antibeauty. His pen was dipped in vitriol, but he was no propagandist. Grosz did not take sides. He poured on his subjects - killers and their victims, workers and bosses, the oppressed and the oppressors - an even-handed hatred. George Grosz was a master, but a master of lowart.
Today, when gross-outs sell and the shocking is applauded, the terms high art and low art are no longer much in fashion. But there is a difference - not so much in quality as in attitude, in spirit. High art is a form of worship. The lower forms of art - the satire, the joke, the insult - seem to have within them built-in limitations. The masters of low art - the humorists, the shockers, take us so far and no farther. Even when horrific, their work resembles entertainment more than incantation.
High art need not be sweet. The low and high can mix. The creepy nightmares painted by Hieronymus Bosch have about them a seer's high intensity; Goya's horros have compassion at their core; there is a joy that comforts behind the satires of Hogarth, and though Francis Bacon shows us sufferers and screamers, we feel the hymn to beauty of his gorgeous paint.
Before the drawings of George Grosz we hear no sort of prayer; we sense, instead, a curse.
A bitter, mirthless laughter echoes through the George Grosz exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. All the items in it - 17 drawings, 16 watercolors, as well as four oils - are drawn from that museum's permanent collection. It is a small, disturbing show.
Few artists of our century have had souls as cold as his. Because he fled his native Germany and opposed its rulers, he often is regarded as a battler for good. Later in his life he encouraged that misapprehension. "I considered all art useless unless it could be employed as a political instrument in the battle for freedom," he wrote. "My art was to be my arm, my sword."
But his art is not for anything. He attacks lusting blacks and hook-nosed Jews as bitterly as he condemns those who love to war. His mordant wit, his acid, and the style of his politics recall the plays of Bertholt Brecht, another Weimar German, but Brecht, whose hardness armors hope, fought in favor of the masses. George Grosz thought them hateful."Among the masses," he wrote, "I found scorn, mockery, fear, oppression, falsehood, betrayal, lies and filth." He knew he had developed a "knife-hard drawing style that enabled me to communicate my observations, which were dictated by absolute hatred of men."
George Grosz was born in Berlin in 1893. When his father, who had managed a Masonic lodge, died in 1900, his mother took ill-paying jobs, first working as a seamstress, later as a housekeeper for a fashionable Prussian regiment. George showed his anger early. In 1908 he hit a teacher, and was expelled from school.
Grosz studied art in Dresdea first, later in Berlin and Paris. His life as a young artist was changed abruptly by the war. Shortly after joining the German army in November 1914, he came down with "brain fever," and dysentery, too, and in May was given an honorable medical discharge. It seemed, by 1915, that his character had formed. Frank Gettings, the Hirshhorn's associate curator for prints and drawings, who organized the show, describes in place in 1915 among a group of pacifists in a studio in Berlin.
"During an antiwar discussion there one evening, a stranger announced that he endorsed the war and that he intended, with the help of war cripples, to make a lot of money from it. It was Grosz, neatly dressed, pretending to be a Dutch businessman. When the resulting furor subsided, Wieland Herzfelde (the poet and future publisher) commented to one of the guests, 'He must belong to us somehow. Only where we have what we call our souls - you may call it religion or belief in humanity; you know what I mean, there he has nothing. Just nothing. Or only doubts. Or an empty hole. Nothing. Not such a simple person, you can bet."
Drafted again, in 1917, Grosz deserted and was sentenced to death. Saved at the last minute through the intervention of a well-placed friend. Grosz was sent to an asylum. It is little wonder that the German army thought the artist mad.
The drawings that he published in furiated many. Grosz was tried, in 1920, for "libeling the army" and fined 5,000 marks.Convicted again in 1923 for "corrupting the sense of shame and virtue innate to the German people," and for blasphemy as well (he had drawn a whore wearing a cross), he was fined 6,000 marks. In 1928, he was found guilty of blasphemy again. This time he had drawn Christ wearing a gas mask.
His drawings were by now famous in Berlin, and often reproduced.He had taken for his style something from the Futurists, the Expressionists and from Dada, too. He joined the local Dada cell (his title was "Propagandada"), and took to wandering the street with a death's head mask, carrying a sign that read, "Dada, Dada, uber alles." The avant-garde elements of the midle classes, the very people he so often skewered with his pen, seemed to be amused. Punk, today, in some ways is similarly received. The hatred that burns in it is seen as fashionable, cute.
Grosz shows us no heroes. The figures in his German drawings, with their sagging flesh and bloodshot eyes, are gluttons, lechers, brutes. There is no trace of kindness or compassion in this, his finest art. Some artists grow with age, mellow and improve. Grosz was at his best when young. Later, when his art became sweeter, less contemptuous, it began to wither and to sag.
The date of the transition was 1932. In April of that year, Grosz accepted an invitation offered by the Art Students League and moved from Berlin to New York. His graciousness surprised the journalists who met him at the boat, "Mild Monster Arrives," announced Time magazine.
Something in the New World dimmed his fierceness and his anger. He began producing seascapes, landscapes, academic nudes, as if paying homage to the very muses he had so long scorned. He said that his ambition was to be "a second Norman Rockwell." There is a beachscape in the show in which nothing, save the rusted nails jutting from the driftwood, hints at his old fury. Grosz, who had once wondered "was I specially selected to experience horror?" had begun to search for grace.
In 1939 he visited Cape Cod in what he later called "a Franciscan mood." "I hobnobbed with trees and grasses and flowers," said George Grosz.
Reading his account today one feels, instead of gladness, something close to pity.
In a speech that he delivered not long before he died, Grosz tried to make his peace with the muses of high art. "There is only a small place in great art for the quips and digs and innuendo of the satirist," he said. "In all humility I offer you evidence that I have outgrown the satirical phase of my artistic development."
The microphone had failed. Though his audience could not hear him, George Grosz kept on talking. The laughter of the audience grew. They thought his speech a joke.
Grosz, when filled with hatred, was a sort of master. His last works, fueled by friendship, seem the paintings of a hack.
In 1959, by now an American citizen, he visited Berlin. On July 6, in that city, he fell down in his hallway. He died as he was being carried up the stairs.
The Hirshhorn exhibition, the latest in a series of admirable one-man shows drawn from their collection, closes Jan. 14, 1979.