George Grosz made the drawings and paintings for which he will be remembered during the First World War and in the Twenties and Thirties. In his autobiography (first published in German in 1955), Old Grosz looks back at Young Grosz, and considers the change of direction which came in his work when he went to America. 'My life in America began with an inner confrontation - a confrontation with my past. It taught me that caricatures are prized chiefly in periods of cultural decline, that life and death are too fundamental to be subjects of mockery and cheap jibes.' The lesson was only half-learned. The best parts of his book are coloured by a taste for grotesque detail which recalls his earlier drawings rather than his later ones, and it is never clear how far he rejects, or regrets, his early work. He can be ironical about his desire to float along in the warm stream of American popular illustration: 'My new motto was: harm none and please all. Assimilation comes easily when you have rejected the common superstition that character is of supreme importance. "Character" does duty as a synonym for inflexibility, and anyone anxious to get on in life had best dispense with it altogether.' It is sad, almost comical, that the 'Mild Monster' (Time's description) should have expected to find a place for his kind of drawing in the New Yorker - yet one can understand how the bitter taste of his talents could have failed to please him. There is no reason to believe he is being satirical when he writes that 'even when I was following along insane Dadaist paths or making "angular" expressionist drawings and paintings I had kept sneaking looks over my shoulder at normal true-to-life illustrations. This was genuine art for the masses ... I preferred their saccharine quality to those outpourings of acid, of bogus colours and forms that paraded under the name of modern art.'
LRB 7 October 1982 | PDF Download