Artist George Grosz was known for his searing critique of German society in the aftermath of World War I. As a prominent member of the Berlin Dada and the New Objectivity groups, he produced numerous paintings, drawings and prints depicting poverty, moral decline, and other social illnesses, often rendered as caricatures.
Escaping growing nationalism and militarism in Germany, Grosz moved with his family to the United States in January 1933, just a few weeks before the Nazis gained power.
As he wrote on May 5, 1933 in a letter to the exiled German writer Max Herrmann-Neisse, he left “not as a political refugee,” but because “I felt more comfortable here and saw my better chance. Glad to finally be out of this inciteful stir up and political clique.”
The Getty Research Institute has several works by Grosz, together with a collection of other European prints and drawings assembled by Los Angeles based collector Dr. Richard A. Simms.
Grosz’s watercolors Cape Cod and Sand Dunes in Cape Cod stand out. Both were painted in 1939, the year Grosz became an American citizen. These sunlit and calm beachscapes reveal the artist’s mental retreat from social and political conflicts left behind. They offer an insight into his new life, spending summers enjoying the sun and beaches of Cape Cod in the late 1930s.
Soon after his retreat to Cape Cod, World War II began and Grosz engaged again in intense political commentary producing dark imaginary visions of destruction and war. The beachscapes of Cape Cod testify to a relatively short period of quiet and relaxation in his life as an artist.
The two beachscapes fill a gap in the scholarship about Grosz. They are not known from publications and were not included in the retrospective exhibition George Grosz Berlin New York held at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf in 1995. (The exhibition did include several sketchbooks with studies of dunes and beach vegetation; executed in watercolor, ink and pencil during the Grosz family’s vacations in Cape Cod from 1937 to 1939.)
Before he came to the United States, Grosz painted At the Café. Rendered in a grotesquely exaggerated manner, an elegantly dressed couple is shown sitting and facing each other at a table. The work exemplifies how Grosz used caricature to express social criticism and political commentary. Held previously in private collections, it hasn’t been shown to the public since the early 1960s. It has now “resurfaced” and is part of the Getty Research Institute’s holdings of prints and drawings.
On March 12, 1939 Grosz wrote to the German writer Kurt Pinthus about how his sentiment toward his art had changed.
“Today I am extremely critical of my “old” things… Today, I consider all caricatures very overrated, a sign of a low time. Caricature and grimace belong as one-time annual entertainment at the end of the harvest, that’s all. I admire real skill, perfection, and Greek mastery and temperance. Ingres, Chardin and the modern artist Salvador Dali. I find Daumier the forerunner of that unskillful and low sloppiness, which was later imitated and caused a lot of harm.”
The letter testifies to the artist’s departure from caricature and to the rising interest in what could be interpreted as classical form inspired by Greek antiquity. The years of exile are, therefore, for Grosz not only a time of retreat and calm but also of a pivotal turn in the search for an adequate artistic form, as if in premonition of the quickly approaching tragic times.
Perhaps the beachscapes are metaphors for the “calm before the storm.”