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George Grosz was born the third child and only son of a Prussian publican in Berlin in 1893. The family soon moved to Pomerania where his father died in 1900 and his mother became a housekeeper in the officers’ mess. Grosz was deeply affected by the genteel poverty of living in a basement flat and impressed with the officers and their lifestyle, a world view that was somewhat distorted from being ‘below stairs’.
Expelled from school at 14, he succeeded in entering the Art Academy in Dresden in 1909 where he studied for two years completing an honours diploma. This was a time when Die Brucke was active in Dresden and the Blaue Reiter in Munich. Of a cool, skeptical disposition, Grosz quickly outgrew his adolescent romanticism and soon moved to Berlin as an aspiring caricaturist. He attended the Art School of the Museum of Arts and Crafts which, being in a modern industrial capital city, was rather more open-minded. The galleries were showing Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Derain. Grosz, a sociable person who enjoyed telling a good story over drinks, gravitated to the ‘sub-culture’ of circuses and dance halls rather than ‘high’ culture. In 1913, he visited Paris for the first time.
In November 1914, he volunteered for the army. After a short time on the Western Front, Grosz was released from duty in May for medical reasons and returned to Berlin to live with his sister. The American jazz records of a friend influenced him with their rhythms and syncopation and he became aware of the Futurists and Expressionists. He had some poetry and drawings published and started to work for the new anti-war periodical Die Neue Jugend, a well-produced effort that was soon banned. In 1918, he and several friends joined the Communist Party and in 1919, they discover Dadaism, which appealed to their sense of anarchy and the absurd.
Grosz had his first one-man show in 1920 in Munich and soon after married Eva Peter. Still very involved with political commentaries, he also produced theatrical designs. In April 1921, he was convicted of slandering the Reichswehr and, in 1923, his portfolio Ecce Homo was confiscated by the Public Prosecutor for obscenity. However, his reputation was expanding and he soon had his first show in Berlin, which then travelled to Vienna, and by 1924, his first show in Paris.
In 1926 his first son was born. His art and commissions were permitting a good deal of travel but his acerbic pen was keeping him in trouble with the German authorities and Grosz was found guilty of ‘blasphemy’ in 1928, a conviction that was eventually overturned after two lengthy appeals. His second son was born in 1930 during this process.
At the invitation of the Art Students League, he went to New York to teach in the summer of 1932, returning to Germany in October and staying just long enough to gather his family in order to emigrate to America in January 1933. They settled in Long Island and he continued to teach, both at the Art Students League and at his own school, and to contribute to periodicals such as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1937, the same year that the Nazis included his work in their infamous Degenerate Art exhibition. In 1938 Grosz became an American citizen.
Grosz continued to reap attention in the form of important museum shows (including MoMa, the Art Institute in Chicago and the Whitney) and prizes throughout America and in Europe before, during and after the War. He eventually returned to Europe in 1951, travelling for several months. In June 1954, he went back to Europe, including for the first time Germany, where he was astonished to see how much interest his work aroused. By 1958, he had been inducted into the German Art Academy as a full member and they offered him a studio in West Berlin. In 1959, he decided to return to Germany for good, leaving at the end of May for Berlin. On July 6, he was found at the bottom of the cellar stairs where he had fallen. Although help was called, it was too late.