Charles Saatchi's Great Masterpieces: George Grosz's furious and vitriolic work that highlights man’s depravity

Scathing indictment: the protagonist in Eclipse of the Sun (1926) is said to be Paul von Hindenberg
Scathing indictment: the protagonist in Eclipse of the Sun (1926) is said to be Paul von Hindenberg Credit: The Heckscher Museum of Art
Our columnist takes a peek behind some of the world’s most significant paintings. This week, Eclipse of the Sun by George Grosz

It would be difficult to find an artist whose work was more furious and more profoundly vitriolic than that of George Grosz (1893-1959). The only other painter who ever approached his towering rage was Goya, with pictures that grimly revealed the atrocities of war.

Grosz’s portrayal of life in Weimar Germany in the early decades of the 20th-century are slashingly vicious and as arresting as a withering satirical cartoon. He skewered the bloated businessmen who profiteered from the nation’s financial woes, and the worst excesses of the political classes in the build-up to Nazism. His work was laser-sharp at pinpointing corruption and hypocrisy, holding up his cast of subjects to ridicule and contempt. He didn’t use specific individuals, but rather allegorical types representing the targets of his displeasure.

Unsurprisingly, his views on post-First World War German society were considered such negative propaganda by the authorities that he was arrested three times and heavily fined. It was clear that neither Grosz nor his art were wanted in Germany, and he gladly took up an offer to teach in New York in 1933, just as Hitler became chancellor of Germany, coming closer to totalitarian power.

George Grosz, Eclipse of the Sun (detail), 1926 Credit: The Heckscher Museum of Art

Before he became a leading member of the Berlin Dada group, he had been discharged from the military for being mentally unfit. His drawings and sketches concentrated on social decay and the growth of militarism, the gulf between the rich and poor, greedy capitalists, the smug bourgeoisie – as well as hollow-faced factory labourers, disabled war veterans, and the unemployed, eking out life on the fringe.

After emigrating to the US, his work took a less misanthropic turn, and he seemed content to generally paint attractive landscapes. Even so, his striking painting The Survivor, painted at the height of the Second World War, was considered so offensive by the Nazi regime that he was designated “Cultural Bolshevik Number One”.  

When he had arrived in America, among the works he was carrying was his 1926 painting Eclipse of the Sun. It hadn’t been shown in Germany because, for once, its main protagonist was clearly identifiable – Paul von Hindenberg, the avaricious industrialist and president of the German Reich. The painting is a scathing indictment of what we refer to today as the military-industrial complex, whereby a network of individuals and institutions involved in the production of weapons typically attempts to marshal political support for increased military spending by the government. 

The painting shows a seated general and four headless bureaucrats, who are obviously blind to any shady deals taking place. Grosz used the sun as a central symbol of life, eclipsed by a dollar sign, generally accepted as signifying greed. The donkey represents a typical self-important burgher, wearing blinders to signify his dumb ignorance. Below, a small child appears to be imprisoned. Perhaps the child evokes the dissident voice of youth that has been muffled? Or simply a brutal lack of concern for coming generations?

George Grosz

But there was no appetite for such eviscerating pictures in the US. Grosz largely relied on his modest teaching income from various institutions. When he found himself increasingly short of cash, he parted with Eclipse of the Sun to cover a paltry outstanding debt. In 1968, the picture was sold to the local Heckscher Museum in Long Island, for $15,000 (£11,000).

In 2005, this small provincial museum decided to offload the painting to pay for building expansion and general renovations. It appears that, over time, the significance of the work had become apparent in the art world but, on the brink of a $19 million sale, news of the impending transaction leaked. The ensuing protests were outraged and vocal, and the Heckscher Museum felt obliged to abandon the deal. The museum vowed instead to grant the painting a dedicated prime position, so that it could now be more widely admired as “the museum’s most prized possession” and “one of the most important paintings in 20th century art”. 

Grosz’s images continue to haunt viewers today. The Faith Healers, for instance, from 1917, also known as Fit for Active Service, shows us a doctor inspecting a skeleton with a makeshift ear trumpet, and declaring him KV – short for kriegsverwendungsfähig, or fit for combat. The picture refers to those soldiers who had previously been discharged for medical reasons but had been recalled to return to the front after German troops had suffered heavy losses. 

In A Funeral: Tribute to Oskar Panizza, from 1918, Grosz’s disgust at the state of German society in the tumultuous post-war years illustrates his sense of claustrophobia. The collage-like technique draws on cubism and futurism to present hordes of distorted and skeletal figures in a hellish chasm of buildings, which lean precariously over them. The fiery reds and stark blacks create an unsettling tribute to Oskar Panizza, the controversial avant-garde author. 

Grosz described compositions such as this as a “gin alley of grotesque dead bodies and madmen… a teeming throng of possessed human animals…wherever you step, there’s the smell of sh--”. 

In truth, it is probably more revealing to let Grosz explain his work in his own words: “My drawings express my despair, hate and disillusionment. I drew drunkards, puking men, men with clenched fists cursing at the moon. I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands… I drew lonely little men fleeing madly through empty streets. I drew a cross-section of a tenement house; through one window could be seen a man attacking his wife; through another two people making love: from a third hung a suicide with its body covered by swarming flies. I drew soldiers without noses; war cripples with crustacean-like steel arms; two medical soldiers putting a violent infantryman into a straitjacket made of horse blanket… I also wrote poetry.”

A leading French critic declared his work “the most definitive catalogue of man’s depravity in all history”. Grosz died in West Berlin three weeks after returning to his native country for a visit in 1959.

© Charles Saatchi