George Grosz, Remembering

George Grosz, Remembering, 1937, oil on canvas, 71.2 x 91.76 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art, © Estate of George Grosz)

Nazi violence forced many artists and intellectuals to leave Germany in the 1930s, and like Grosz, many came to the United States.

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:11] We’re in the Minneapolis Institute of Art — MIA — looking at a painting by George Grosz, titled “Remembering.”

Dr. Robert Cozzolino: [0:17] Grosz was an expert portraitist, so when he makes this self-portrait, he’s able to capture the look of somebody who is haunted, having this private moment. Grosz, in this painting, is hunched over in this indeterminate space that’s very thickly painted, and his head is the only thing that’s clearly defined.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:32] His face is so sharply defined, but what’s interesting is he’s not looking out at us. He seems to be looking slightly to his right.

Dr. Cozzolino: [0:46] Grosz is in this vortex and storm that is partially evoked through the slashing and abstract paint. His eyes are open and he’s staring off, but we don’t get the sense that he’s looking at anything. It’s this ability to convey to us that he is having this reflective moment where he’s imagining something, or he’s remembering back to something.

[1:00] He had been one of the architects of German contemporary art. His work was in public institutions. He was very successful already.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [1:09] And this was not made in Germany. It was made in New York.

Dr. Cozzolino: [1:11] In 1932, Grosz got a invitation to teach at the Art Students League in New York, and he went for several months, and then went back to Germany just in time to witness the changes that were starting to happen. In early January, he and his family left Germany and went to New York.

[1:33] And so he titles it “Remembering,” and it seems to be Grosz in a meditation or trance, thinking about his role as an exile while Germany’s in turmoil. That’s reflected in the rest of the painting.

Dr. Zucker: [1:44] It’s interesting that Grosz has portrayed himself with his back turned to the violence, whereas we see a couple just behind him that seem to be witnessing it firsthand.

Dr. Cozzolino: [1:49] It looks like he’s in the hollowed-out ruins of a building. And yes, behind him there seems to be this person with an orange shirt on who’s carrying another person, helping them away. Then, in the deep distance, there’s another suggestion of another part of ruins. They keep going on.

[2:04] People often ask, “Do you dream in color or black and white?” To me, the memory and imagining part of this caused Grosz to amp up the intense glowing, almost like the glowing embers of a fire, that defines that shirt. Then on the far left, you have this beautiful deep blue that sets it at night.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] It’s hard for me to imagine what it would have been like to have left my country behind, a country that I saw slipping into a kind of horror.

Dr. Cozzolino: [2:31] Is this something that Grosz actually saw? Probably not. It seems to be Grosz thinking about the kinds of things that might be happening in [the] Germany that he’s escaped.

Dr. Zucker: [2:39] This painting was made before the Holocaust was fully understood, but the terror against the Jews was known. The terror against political adversaries was known. And in fact, we know that at least one of his early friends had been murdered by the Nazis.

Dr. Cozzolino: [2:55] Grosz left a lot behind, he left other family members behind. His wife and his two sons left, but his mother and many of his relations were still there. So getting an opportunity to leave to go to New York must have carried this weight of responsibility and guilt with it.

[3:07] He went back to Europe in 1935 on a return trip, and he wrote after that that he started to see, all over Europe, a rising fascist wave. That must have confirmed his instincts to leave. He had been persecuted as an artist who had political leanings under less oppressive regimes.

[0:00] He must have known that the Nazis were going to come for him. Grosz saw the writing on the wall and knew that he needed to get out of Germany.

Dr. Zucker: [3:34] This is made in 1937, soon after the bombing of the Spanish city Guernica, which Picasso made a famous painting about, and photographs of the ruins of that city were published in the newspaper. That is something that Grosz might have seen.

Dr. Cozzolino: [3:48] Even before that, Grosz had been critical of Hitler and made caricatures of him.

Dr. Zucker: [3:58] Grosz had been highly critical through his art of what he called the pillars of society: the church, the military, the middle class.

Dr. Cozzolino: [4:01] His whole life, Grosz was a troublemaker, and he would have thought of that as a badge of honor for an artist, somebody who was a rabble-rouser and stirred things up and pointed out social injustice.

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] In fact, the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition, the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, opened in 1937 in Germany as an exhibition that was meant to ridicule international avant-garde art, but it also included art that was seen by the Nazis as promoting a degenerate thinking.

Dr. Cozzolino: [4:29] The degenerate thinking to the Nazis manifested in subject matter that was critical of the state, or the military, or of religion, but also a formal experiment. Anything that had been developed by artists considering themselves modernists, so Cubism, Futurism, Dadism — which Grosz had been involved in — things like that were under that umbrella term of degenerate.

Dr. Zucker: [4:54] Grosz here is in exile, and although he had very little money from the work that he was doing teaching art, he did help to support a number of his friends, other artists, that came to New York seeking refuge.

Dr. Cozzolino: [5:09] Grosz’s story reminds us of how our culture has been enriched, but also has been challenged, and has been transformed, by waves of people from different countries coming to the United States and making their lives, but also affecting the micro-cultures around them, whether we’re talking about New York City or we’re talking about Minnesota.

Dr. Zucker: [5:21] Some scholars have noted that America came into its own in large part thanks to intellectuals, artists, musicians, physicists, and others that were fleeing Nazi Germany. It’s an important reminder of the positive impact that immigrants can have, especially at a time now in the early 21st century when sentiment has turned, in some quarters, against immigration.

Dr. Cozzolino: [5:45] The alternate of the story is that Grosz has turned away, or doesn’t have a sponsor, doesn’t have an opportunity here, and is left in Germany. We have a sense, as he did, of what would have happened there. There would have been no more George Grosz and no more paintings.

[5:58] Grosz stated something about this that I think is very interesting. He said, “I was compelled by an inner warning to paint destruction and ruins. Some of my paintings I called apocalyptic landscapes, though that was quite some time before the real thing took place.”

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Cite this page as: Dr. Robert Cozzolino, Minneapolis Institute of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "George Grosz, Remembering," in Smarthistory, December 21, 2018, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/george-grosz-remembering/.