Arts: Line 'em up

George Grosz's Berlin-era drawings have an economy of penning that throws into sharp relief the grotesque subjects portrayed. Tom Lubbock on the RA's new show
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George Grosz gets people's goats. You may say that's as it should be. He made it his business to be the satirist of Weimar Germany, and if satire doesn't nark, then it isn't working. I agree, partly. But there seem to be two general responses to satirical aggression, both wrong. There are those who ask, shaking their heads, how can someone take such a negative, unpleasant view of everything - as if good art can't come out of very bad feelings. There are also those who adopt the hearty position and make a kind of machismo of viciousness - as if the great thing were just to be as bloody rude as possible.

But it's not just a question of attitude. And if Grosz makes one uneasy, it's not because of his fairly comprehensive negation of the world he pictures. The Berlin of George Grosz at the Royal Academy, an exhibition of his drawings from 1912 to 1930, offers a wide survey of this vision. All the monsters are here, the brutish soldiers, the vain bourgeois, the gross plutocrats and the filthy tarts. But in the best of these drawings you find a split - a split between the ugly vision and the incredibly cool hand. Appalled, outraged, sickened Grosz may have been, or having a grisly ball; but at the same time, there's his superb, elegant and economical line.

Grosz found this line sometime in the middle of the First World War. He was in his early twenties and between his two brief spells of military service (invalided out both times, no fighting). It was around this time too that he anglicised his name as an anti-patriotic gesture, and acquired a vigorous world-disgust. And it's a nice moment in this show, having gone past his very disparate early efforts - he'd trained in commercial graphics - to find suddenly a handful of pictures where the Grosz signature is clearly marked.

Sex Murder in Acker Street is one. A shifty looking man is washing up in a prostitute's room, having chopped off her head; her bloodstained body lies twisted on the bed, his axe beside it (the head is not in view). Sex murder was already a chic, horror subject, following Wedekind's portrayal of Jack the Ripper as the ultimate outsider in the Lulu plays.

Grosz's idea is much seedier. But how neat it is, in the way it does it all on a pure line economy. There's no shading and no blocking. Even the blood stains are feathery little criss-crosses and asterisks - a very smart device, equating nib and knife, but so light you feel a troubling disjunction of the revolting facts and their fine graphic "solution". And everywhere in the scene the drawing is doing these turns, finding deft, minimal solutions to one object after another (the horned phonograph is a gem), details that could be taken out and used as vignettes on the pages of Vogue. This is Grosz's high style: nasty subject, exquisite turn of pen.

It's striking how short it lasts. The show goes up to just before Grosz's long-term departure for the USA, and it seems to be agreed that his work in exile is a falling off (I admit I don't know it). But to judge from what's shown here, things start falling off around 1922. Grosz had about seven good years - excitingly busy years in which he joined with the German Dadaists and the Communist Party, pioneered photomontage with John Heartfield, produced illustrations for various radical publications and collections of drawings such as The Face of the Ruling Class and Ecce Homo and - always seeking the widest circulation for his work - made himself a leading witness to the post-war Berlin freakshow.

As a satirist, it seems to me, Grosz was a superficial operator. His caricatures are absolutely persuasive and defining. He can make the very image of bestial cruelty, impermeable arrogance, hankering lust, leering imbecility, gloating malice. Every strike hits; but it hits and runs. The types he pinned down so memorably remain no more than typical. It's all at the level of deadly sins. The problem isn't that he gets too much of a kick out of his monsters - an occupational hazard of satire that often has good imaginative results. It's the opposite: he isn't at all inward with these characters, doesn't try to imagine how they work.

For Grosz, a physiognomy is always a straight give-away, bearing its beast-marks all over it. It's never the treacherous mask of assertion and weakness, pretence and disclosure, that the great caricaturists make it. Grosz may or may not be excessively disgusted. Hannah Arendt found no exaggeration. "His cartoons seemed to us not satires but realistic reportage: we know these types; they were all around us." But if they were, Grosz took them, and his disgust, too much at face value.

What gives these images life is the drawing, and it is a separate thing. If you switch off from the attitudes, and just look at the line-construction, the pictures are still very good. This is commercial illustration making its needful immediacy and clarity into a real strength; taking some tricks from post-Cubist fine art, certainly, but turning them to new account. It's a question, not just of line-economy, but Grosz's insistent geometry. You can break down his drawings of these years into their constituent individual lines; if you had the time, you could count them. You find that a high proportion of them are either dead straight or regular curves, which is what makes the breakdown possible. Each shape comes out with the compactness of a slice of cake. It gives a binding force.

This indeed is what makes the caricatures so defining. In his drawing, Grosz proclaims no sensibility: just a few Euclidean elements, add some detailing, and the creature comes together. Sometimes the geometry is expressive. In his most famous picture, KV (Die Gesundbeter), where a rotting corpse is being examined by a military tribunal and pronounced fit for active service, the precise verticals stand for rigid discipline. Or in a picture like My Germany, Grosz does the witless soldier's toasting arm as two almost parallel curves: it sticks out of him like a tube. But the point is, it's not inherently a satirical draughtsmanship. It would be effective whatever its use. It is one of those styles that offers the detached pleasure of seeing the world packed into tidy parcels. So, to Grosz's animus, it gives a detachment that is alarming.

And there's something else - a quality in the line by itself. How's this done? How does he get an energy into even a simple straight line so that it animates the white paper around it? One is tempted, cued by his subject- matter, to describe Grosz's penning in bold and savage terms - to say: he draws with a scalpel, a razor etc. But it isn't so. He doesn't cut his figures out with single, decisive strokes. If you follow them, you see that all these apparently individual lines are in fact multiply fractured - made up of many small overlapping strokes, each of them slightly out of true with the main line into which they coalesce. This isn't a sketchiness, the sort of suggestive vagueness that leaves it to the viewer to make the best of it: the main line is absolutely there and determined. But the fractures do their subliminal work. They make the lines like charged wires.

It feels strange to talk about Grosz in this formal way, when one should be talking about his searing vision and his world and times, the revolution, the counter-revolution, the inflation, the sex-capital of Europe - I mean, Berlin. In the Twenties. And that's certainly what this show wants to emphasise. But what needs to be said is why Grosz is good for the few years that he is, and why he then loses it, and this comes down to his lines. From the early Twenties they begin to change. They begin to flow. Perhaps Grosz felt the style was limiting his human range, and perhaps that's true. But what happens is that the geometry is down-played in favour of a general roundedness, and the fracturing gets much looser and so really does become sketchiness; also Grosz turns more to colour and water-colour, which he uses in a very facile wet-in-wet dissolving way, and the line goes entirely.

The result can be either much cuter than before, a cuddly sort of caricature, or much more disgusting. He falls from his tense wire into various sorts of soup, and I'm afraid that here all the pejorative senses of the word "illustration" apply.

But Grosz was always a commercial artist, and he does honour to a profession which is often unregarded - except when fine artists decide to "break down the barriers" by thieving from it, a theft that is then invariably turned to fine art's credit. Of course the theft goes both ways, but sometimes the other way deserves high credit too, as Grosz's example shows. In his best work he can give a drawing lesson to any artist, beau or hack.

'The Berlin of George Grosz': at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1 to 8 June (0171-439 7438)

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