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Art and Images in Psychiatry
August 2006


Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63(8):843. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.63.8.843

I totally forgot who I was . . . I considered all art senseless unless it served as a weapon in the political arena. My art was a gun and sword. . . . 

—George Grosz1(p113)

On January 4, 1917, George Ehrenfried Grosz's (1893-1959) worst fears were realized when he was recalled to active duty in the German army; he could no longer bear the war.1(p107) At its beginning in November 1914, he had enlisted as a volunteer in Berlin, Germany, but had been discharged for medical reasons in May 1915 as unfit for service. Between enlistments, he worked frantically in his studio during the height of the war. He wrote

the Berlin I returned to was cold and grey. The crowded cafés and bars were in uncanny contrast to our gloomy unheated living quarters . . . soldiers that had been hanging tipsily on the arms of prostitutes in another time could be seen dragging themselves morosely through the streets. . . . heaven and hell are right next to one another in this world!1(p98)

Letters and drawings in 1916 depict the impact of war: drunks, men cursing, murderers, a man washing his blood-stained hands, and lonely men fleeing unknown horrors.

Grosz began Metropolis (cover) in December 1916 shortly before being recalled into military service. The first day after his recall, he was hospitalized and shortly afterwards transferred to a mental hospital after being found “almost unconscious, head first in a latrine. . . . ”1(p107) In April 1917, he was discharged from the military service as mentally unfit. During his hospital stay and afterward, he “scrutinized the justifications for the war offered by the state, church, and educational establishments.”2(p27) He attributed his mental and physical breakdown to his blind obedience to authority. Grosz chose in his art to protest the mutual destruction brought on by the war, the blind heroism, its misery, and its horror. Death in war, for him, was neither sacred nor heroic but grotesque. He evolved a “new pictorial language capable of rendering a piercing vision of the confused life of the modern city.”2(p27)

Cover: George Grosz (1893-1959), German. Metropolis, 1916/1917. Oil on canvas, 100 × 102 cm (39⅜ × 403/16 in). Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, Madrid/Bridgeman Art Library. © Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Cover: George Grosz (1893-1959), German. Metropolis, 1916/1917. Oil on canvas, 100 × 102 cm (39⅜ × 403/16 in). Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, Madrid/Bridgeman Art Library. © Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Metropolis, completed in 1917, shows the artist's revulsion at the horrors brought on by war. It is an allegorical vision of a society cast into destruction. Expressionist in style, the Futurist's glorification of the city is converted into an apocalyptic vision. Is this the final destiny of modern man, he asked? Painting in blood red and defying the laws of perspective, Grosz uses dynamic diagonals to present a world that is falling apart. One witnesses mass pandemonium, chaos, decadence, and crime at a Berlin intersection, possibly after aerial bombardment. A horse-drawn hearse carrying a coffin is surrounded by sinister, dehumanized figures. The denizens of the city rush aimlessly among bars, cafés, and hotels. Panic-stricken people rush along the sidewalks. There is a fluttering American flag. On April 6, 1917, the United States had declared war on Germany. From childhood, Grosz had admired America and in 1916 formally changed his name from Georg Groß to George Grosz. Perhaps the flag was meant to signify a ray of hope, perhaps not.

In 1917, Grosz was a cofounding member of the Berlin Dada. Dada was an art movement that emerged in Zurich and, through the efforts of Richard Huelsenbeck, a medical student, spread to Berlin. Repulsed by the war, Dada faced its tragedy by seeking a clean sweep of existing values and their replacement with higher values.3 In Berlin, it took a distinctly political character. Grosz and Otto Dix initiated the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) art movement, realism combined with a cynical, socially critical stance that aggressively satirized the evils of society and those in power.

Metropolis was shown in the exhibition New Objectivity in June 1925 along with the equally powerful work Homage to Oskar Panizza (1917/1918), another protest against humanity, which has gone mad. It shows Death riding triumphant in a black coffin as a crowd cries out in vain. Three foreground figures symbolize syphilis, alcoholism, and the plague. Oskar Panizza, a psychiatrist, had become psychotic but coped with his psychotic episodes through lurid writing that brought him notoriety. He was twice condemned for blasphemy and the crime of lèse-majesté. Panizza was subsequently hospitalized under Emil Kraepelin, who used his case to introduce his concept of paraphrenia.4

Grosz, too, was prosecuted and persecuted for slander and blasphemy. In 1923, his book Ecce Homo, considered to be pornography and a slanderous attack on the government and the army, was confiscated for offending public morals; he was fined 6000 marks.5 In 1928, Grosz was charged with blasphemy but acquitted in 1930. His satirical drawings and paintings of Hitler (Hitler the Saviour [1923] and The Agitator [1928]), whom he tirelessly warned against, made his decision to leave Germany in 1933 for America inevitable. His warnings ignored, he felt he had been speaking to the wind.

With the rise of Nazism, Metropolis was considered degenerate and was displayed in the Nazi exhibition Degenerate Art in 1937 in Munich. Many of Grosz's works were burned. Metropolis was sold by the Nazis at an infamous auction at the Gallery Fischer in Lucerne, Switzerland, in June 1939.6 Purchased by Kurt Valentin, a New York art dealer, it arrived in America and was eventually purchased by Grosz. George Grosz settled in America and became an American citizen. He taught at the Art Students League of New York, NY, and tried to blend into America, which was difficult for him although he did find success. His last close tie to Germany was his mother, who was killed near the end of the World War II in a bombing raid. After the war, he wrote to Berthold Viertel (21 October 1946): “We live in a terrible, man-eating world, but most so-called artists stand on the sidelines and play as always with ornaments.”2 At an important time historically, George Grosz did not stand by but entered the fray and made a difference. In 1954, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1958 to the West Berlin Academy of Fine Arts.

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Dickerman  L Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, Paris.  Washington, DC National Gallery of Art with Distributed Art Publishers, Inc2006;
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