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George Grosz & the 2016 election

“BEEN THERE, DONE THAT”

When it comes to modern art, it always amazes me how the discourse of certain artists from the last century remains relevant today.

I have had the occasion to examine this phenomenon through my extensive involvement with the work of Auguste Rodin and his legacy, the trajectoire he initiated, as coined by my esteemed friend and colleague Dame Catherine Chevillot, director of the musée Rodin.

But whereas the oeuvre of Rodin remains an undeniable source of inspiration and wonderment at a distance of one hundred years from his passing in 1917, it is chiefly through the work of commentateur extraordinaire George Grosz that on the eve of the 2016 US election I have the opportunity to navigate the colorful run-up, equipped with tools -or at least a perspective, that leads me to take the seemingly outrageous manifestations of this race to the White House with a grain of salt, prompted by a strong sense of déjà vu.

Take for example the recently uncovered photographs of Melania Trump unveiled, obtained and published by the New York Post.

The article begins: “Donald Trump thinks his wife will be a model first lady — and here’s the proof.”

This photograph of Melania wearing only her pumps immediately reminded me of a George Grosz portrait from 1927 that I recently acquired from his estate, among a trove of generally unseen works that for the most part have never even been framed until now.

George GROSZ (1893 - 1959)

Stehender weiblicher Akt

Standing female Nude

Pencil, carpenter’s pen and charcoal on paper

60 x 46,1 cm

1927

Stamped on the reverse “GEORGE GROSZ NACHLASS” and numbered 6-37-4

George Grosz’s obsessive eye missed nothing and his cutting, razor-sharp line recorded the dangers and problems of his time like no other. His incisive depiction of the 1932 election, which he witnessed first-hand as he took on a temporary teaching position that year, prior to giving-up his German citizenship upon permanently emigrating to the USA in 1933, leaves us with a poignant testimony of the American electoral process.

Take for example the 1932 portrait of soon-to-be-defeated incumbent president Herbert Hoover, America’s 31st president, who took office in 1929, the year the U.S. economy plummeted into the Great Depression, and who lost the election of 1932, mostly owing to his being widely blamed for the dire state of the economy, while in fact having largely inherited this fiasco from his predecessor Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States (1923–29), whose silence and dour personality Alice Roosevelt Longworth, a leading Republican wit, underscored:

"When he wished he were elsewhere, he pursed his lips, folded his arms, and said nothing. He looked then precisely as though he had been weaned on a pickle."

So when George Grosz made a drawing of Hoover in 1932, he depicted him as a bust in a museum, being already “history,” with, over his head, a pickle, in fact a reference to his predecessor Calvin Coolidge, thanks to whose mess he lost the election!

George GROSZ (1893 - 1959)

Hoover

Brush, reed pen and pen and ink on paper

60,8 x 46,1 cm

1932

Signed “Grosz” lower right

Stamped on the reverse “GEORGE GROSZ NACHLASS” and numbered 2-146-3

“UHU”, 1932. Illustration for: Eddi Kantor “Amerika, du hast es auch nicht besser”

George Grosz’s talent of capturing the essence of his subject is crystal clear in this portrait; the resemblance is uncanny.

But even as Melania’s nude photo echoes Grosz’s 1927 Standing female Nude, it is not so much the resemblance, but the demeanor of the 1932 Hoover which foreshadows the smugness of presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

I wish George Grosz were here to record this!

But now returning to Melania, as if her saucy pictures didn’t suffice to raise an eyebrow about the decorum normally displayed by a possible future First Lady of the United States, there is talk about Grand Old Party Presidential contender Donald Trump having himself leaked the photos in order to deflect public anger over his cavalier treatment of the outrage of the father of a fallen US soldier in reaction to the presidential hopeful’s suggestion to ban “all Muslims” from entering the USA.

GQ Magazine screamed: “Did Donald Trump leak nude photos of his wife Melania Trump to distract from his disastrous comments about the parents of fallen US soldier Humayun Khan? Or is it simply coincidence?”

Georges Grosz must be turning in his grave!

On the Museum of Modern Art website one can read about George Grosz:

  • Painter, draftsman, printmaker known for pointed political satire and social criticism. 
  • Experience of war (WWI) fueled aversion for German militarism and philistinism. As member of Berlin Dada from 1918 to 1920, created mordantly satirical collages. In 1920s style became more naturalistic in caustic, caricatured studies of corrupt officers, war profiteers, exploitative industrialists, and prostitutes.
  • Emigrated to New York in 1933. Declared an “enemy of the state” by Nazis, who confiscated his works in German museums; some destroyed. One month before his death in 1959, returned to Berlin.

Grosz would have been fascinated by the trials and tribulations of the American public in this election. Surely, he would have brought a valuable dimension to the drama displayed by the myriad characters in this American democracy play.

In an even more bizarre twist in current events, from the Huffington Post of August 8:

WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump was thrilled last week when a veteran at a Virginia rally gave him his Purple Heart. “I’ve always wanted to get a Purple Heart,” he said, dangling the medal typically awarded to soldiers wounded or killed while serving in battle. “This was much easier.”

That response didn’t sit right with Cameron Kerr, a Purple Heart recipient based in Virginia. As an Army veteran who lost his leg on the battleground in Afghanistan, Kerr was stunned to see Trump treating the prestigious award like a flashy new toy. He figured if Trump has really always wanted a Purple Heart, he should have to earn it “the old-fashioned way”: by going into a war zone.

And on the crow-funding website of the army veteran who lost his leg one reads:

“Don't worry...it's satire for a good cause” …which of course brings us back to George Grosz.

George GROSZ (1893 - 1959)

Kriegskrüppel

War Cripple

Brush, reed pen and pen and ink on paper

59,4 x 46,1 cm

1923

Stamped on the reverse “GEORGE GROSZ NACHLASS” and numbered 2-129-6

Here again, in 1923 Grosz put his finger on the plight of war veterans, and on how our treatment of those who have fallen or have been wounded defending our values and ideals, in fact defines who we are….

So, starting with (not so) caricatured nudes, and finishing with war veterans, the sharp eye of George Grosz gives a marvellous resonance to the oh-so- important process of electing the next president of the United States, and I’m seriously considering making this the theme of the fall 2016 exhibition at Akim Monet Side by Side Gallery, Berlin.

The present blog entry about George Grosz and the election is also featured on the US edition of the Huffington Post.

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