In my last post, I highlighted several of the many prints in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection that, like those now on view in the Käthe Kollwitz exhibition in the Herstory Gallery of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, were made in response to the horrors of World War I. In this second post, I want to consider a few works by Georg Grosz (German, 1893-1959) and Otto Dix (German, 1891-1960), both of whom volunteered to fight for their country in World War I, influenced in part by national propaganda or leftist dreams that the war would finally and spectacularly doom monarchy and bourgeoisie materialism.
Cynicism and disillusionment with the government and militarism permeates the work of George Grosz, an incisive caricaturist, satirist, and one of the most influential graphic artists to be associated with Expressionism, New Objectivity, and Dada. An ardent communist and supporter of the working class, Grosz expressed his disdain for the right wing capitalist and military ruling classes in a caustic portfolio of lithographs he made after WWI ironically titled God With Us after the nationalistic motto inscribed on every German soldier’s belt buckle. The print For German Right and German Morals (German Soldiers to the Front) (55.165.143) presents five brutish, malevolent, and corrupt specimens of the German military; the squat and thuggish officer in the center, whose holster makes obvious reference to his genitals, crushes a flower under his boot.
And in The Communists Fall and Foreign Exchange Rises (Blood is the Best Sauce)(X1041), another repulsive officer enjoys a genteel meal with a bloated war profiteer, one carving his meat and the other delicately dabbing at a stain on his shirt, while behind them a mob of vicious soldiers wield their bayonets to kill unarmed workers. Grosz based some of these lithographs on drawings he made while a patient in a mental hospital during the war, claiming he wanted to retain “everything that was laughable and grotesque in my environment.” When Grosz exhibited the portfolio at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920, he was accused, tried, and found guilty of defaming the military. Like Max Beckmann, Grosz would immigrate to the United States, arriving in New York in 1933.
Otto Dix noted that “War was something horrible, but nonetheless something powerful…Under no circumstances could I miss it!” But the epic destruction and trauma of modern mechanical warfare and its aftermath was soon made starkly apparent to him.
After the war, Germany’s streets were filled with one and a half million wounded and crippled soldiers. Dix, who fought as a machine gunner on the Western Front, depicts three such figures in his print Card Players (55.165.66). Here, the war’s capacity for bodily devastation and disintegration is sharply delineated: a mechanical jaw and hand, a patch covering a missing nose, an unseeing glass eye, an ear tube emerging directly from a misshapen skull. Between the three men there is only a single shirt-sleeved and cuff-linked leg; like the other soldier’s mouth it has been repurposed to hold cards. The other prosthetic “legs” and the contraption supporting the torso of the figure on the left are nearly indistinguishable from the chair and table legs. These figures play cards (and smoke cigars!) like they may have done before the war, but in this image of truncated, mechanized men, Dix shows how the war machine remade the world in its own image.