Art review: Georg Grosz's Berlin - Prostitutes, Politicians and Profiteers


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The Independent Culture

This is the first substantial London show of works on paper by the great, Berlin-born political satirist Georg Grosz in twenty years, and, oddly, it is being staged in a private gallery. What is more, the show of 50 works is a major loan exhibition – none of the paintings of drawings is for sale. What's in it for the gallery? 'We got a call from a collector the other day, offering us works by Grosz,' Richard Nagy tells me. So there you have it.

Grosz has one of the most exhilaratingly savage and pessimistic of perspectives upon society and its endemic sicknesses. He is nastier, more extreme than Hogarth. His human heads – from flat to lumpy to carbuncular - are more variously disgusting. Few artists can match him for the range of his versions of human ugliness and bestiality. There is never a moment in this show when we don't glimpse the skulls beneath the skin.

The Berlin on view here belongs to the years from 1912 to 1928. Amongst other things, it encompasses the aftermath of the depredations of war, the collapse of Weimar, and the rise of a new and grotesquely dangerous militarism. Grosz seldom shows human beings on their own. They are generally part of a seething, mutually antagonistic mass. This is society in manic movement, and the backdrop to it is a city that seems to be perpetually leaning over its inhabitants like a roaring drunk about to vomit down a bystander's neck. Grosz spits upon the bourgeoisie chomping at their cigars, porcine to a man, laughs at the absurd posturings of the military man, and shows pity for the wretched down-trodden – he was a convinced communist until he travelled to the Soviet Union and saw the dictatorship of the proletariat for himself.

He works very finically, often with a reed pen, and then adds glorious, near hallucinogenic washes of colour, often wet on wet. This is a world of sinister twilight shiftings and manoeuvrings, in close-pent cafes, on street corners, in whore houses. Humans rub up against each other like sandpaper. The whole thing makes us wince. It is all so terribly, terribly stark. Nothing but the worst is to be expected from any random human encounter. And the versions of humanity that float through this immoralist's zone are often costumed to the nines. We know that they are pitiless wolves at heart though.

Until 2 November