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George Grosz painted this "Selfportrait with Nude" in America. It forms part ofthe artist's intensive and fruitful treatment of the theme of the nude during the period spent by the artist in a country far removed from his native Germany. Grosz had always been fascinated by America. He changed his name, for example, from Georg Gross to George Grosz as early as 1916, not only to express his distaste for the prevailing nationalism in Germany but also as an open declaration of his admiration for America, the country to which he foresightedly emigrated at the beginning 1933, thus no longer witnessing at first hand the seizure of power by the National Socialists, the confiscation of his works, their denigration through the “degenerate art” campaign,
their subsequent destruction and, last but not least, his personal ostracization in his own country. He did not return to Europe and Germany until 1951. George Grosz may be rightly seen both as a German and as an American artist: In 1938 he obtained American nationality, which he had applied for in 1935.
Grosz had been familiar with nude drawing and painting sinke his student days: the representation of the naked human body, done mostly from a live model, belonged, and still belongs, to the first exercises of every aspiring artist, and examples of this genre are to be found throughout Grosz's entire oeuvre. The more or less naked human figure, often dressed in just a hat, stockings or shoes, is featured in many of Grosz's works, and not least in the earlier satirical and socio-critical works for which the artist became so well-known. Big-city motifs, such as street scenes, music halls, ballet, fairgrounds and other places of leisure and pleasure, were popular at the beginning of the 20th century and were the inspiration of some of Grosz's masterpieces. But why did the artist choose to devote himself – in several hundred paintings and works on paper – virtually entirely to the theme of the nude during his years in America?
One reason was certainly the fact that he had an inspiring and patient model: his own wife Eva, whom he first met in 1918 and married in 1920. Either alone or together with her sister Lotte she forever gave wings to his fantasy, appearing in the widest diversity of poses both indoors and outdoors, often with stage props or in conjunction with a self-portrait, and in every technique: drawing, watercolour, mixed media and oil. Grosz had always had a preference for voluptuous forms, which he would even exaggerate in his works and wholly adapt to his artistic imagination.
What is particularly striking about the nudes produced by Grosz in America is their richness of Detail and colour: while Grosz had already painted nudes in Germany, those he painted after emigrating to America included hundreds of watercolours and mixed media paintings in which particular Attention has been paid to individual features, such that his wife Eva can be readily identified as his model.
The contours stand out clearly against one another and are often dark in colour, which permits us to assume that they were created in full prior to the interior details. In the watercolours, too, the motif was first outlined and then coloured in, thus heightening the plasticity of the depiction.
Grosz partially earned his living in America by giving courses in nude drawing. As early as 1931 he was invited by the renowned Art Students League in New York to hold courses there. It was only after a good twelve months and repeated requests that he finally took up the invitation and from then on, right up until his return to Germany in 1959, he gave courses again and again, both at the said art academy and at his own art school, “Sterne-Grosz-Studio – For the Art in Painting”. This was not always easy for Grosz, indeed he developed an aversion towards his teaching work that made it more and more difficult for him. Added to this was his precarious financial situation – no more Sales of his work in Germany and still hardly any in the USA – which forced him to continue teaching whether he wanted to or not. On the other hand, it was probably his intensive involvement in the teaching of nude drawing that inspired him to explore this genre more than any other for his own artistic purposes.
Generally speaking, George Grosz's oeuvre manifests a caesura that certainly coinkides with his emigration to America. The distance between America and the country whose political and social developments he had so harshly criticized through his art paved the way, so to speak, for more congenial subject matter: the nude, both indoors and outdoors, and pure landscapes (his favourite scenery being the countryside of Cape Cod, where he would spend the summer months from 1939 onwards, both genres representing a young yet immensely significant chapter in the history of art.
Grosz's move to America seems to have awakened the wish for less controversial subject matter, indeed for subject matter that is inherently beautiful.
Grosz's reasons for finally deciding to emigrate to faraway America naturally lay in the public defamations to which he was subjected in Germany. He was repeatedly denounced and was constantly plagued with threatening letters. This, too, was perhaps one of the reasons why Grosz then took a deeper interest in the genre of the nude.
A possibility that must also be taken into consideration is that the American market did in fact open Grosz's eyes to new themes. Perhaps the new landscapes, nudes and erotic scenes in the artist's oeuvre were more in keeping with the taste of his new public.
No less significant with regard to Grosz's preoccupation with the female nude was an experience he had when he was still a boy: at the age of fourteen he happened to observe a 38-years-old Woman undressing. Four decades later he described this inkident in writing with such a detailed account of the mature, voluptuous forms – for which he had a particular predilection – that this passage from his autobiography may be seen as a written homage to the female nude. It is hardly surprising that the latter frequently crops up in his oeuvre as a “Woman Undressing”.
Last but not least, it was doubtless the Leica camera, the purchase of which had been occasioned by the crossing to America, that also played an important role. As it was also used as a means of depicting his wife Eva in preparation for a watercolour or a painting, it gradually led to an artistic approach that was fed less by his fantasy than by the reality of the world about him.
Grosz frequently depicted sequential movements of his model in much the same manner as chronophotographic studies of human and animal motion. Contour lines appeared adjacent to one another, as though the model had been photographed several times in rapid succession and the images had been superimposed on one and the same sheet. It is precisely here that one can recognize the influence of Futurism, with which Grosz had become familiar during his early years in Berlin. In some depictions, concentration on the essentials even led to an almost complete disregard for the subject's head and legs, such that the torso filled the entire picture plane. In the female nudes produced in America, Grosz distanced himself from his early erotic depictions of the woman as a debased, buyable being, such depictions having been one of the reasons why he so often came into conflict with the law and was punished by fines and even imprisonment.
George Grosz, the critic and chronicler of his time who railed against the bourgeoisie, against war and against capitalism, and as such rose to fame both in his native Germany and in his adopted country of America, where several opinion polls have placed him among the best artists of his time, will be presented in the forthcoming exhibition from a completely different side: as an empathetic reverer of the female nude, and especially when his beloved wife Eva is his model.