Broader Picture: Ralph's Grosz Misdemeanours

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The Independent Culture
It was my first encounter with the works of the German artist George Grosz, when I was in my twenties, which showed me that drawing need not just be a space-filler in a newspaper: in the hands of an honest man, drawing could be a weapon against evil. So when I heard the Royal Academy would be holding an exhibition of Grosz's art, I drew this picture, which I call The Grosz Bone Fight. It contains 30 years' worth of my caricatures, and exactly expresses what his characters, and all of us, are doing: fighting over the same bone while pretending to have a party.

My father was born in 1893, the same year as George Grosz. It must have been a vintage year. My father railed against everything and everyone - so did Grosz. They even looked alike, except that while Grosz resembled a pugnacious WC Fields, my father wore the beatific smile of a Stan Laurel. Both served in the First World War and, as far as their attitudes to war were concerned, may as well have been on the same side. Both men hated militarism, warmongers and war's futility. Both men have influenced me.

They would never have faced each other on the battlefield; Grosz was discharged as a basket case within six months of the outbreak of war, whilst my father had to stick it out to the bitter end and was wounded three times. And here there is a divergence, for throughout it all my father never once thought of dying, whereas Grosz felt compelled to use creativity to exorcise his paralysing fear of death.

Look at the drawings of George Grosz that will be on show at the RA (such as Diamond Profiteers at the Cafe Kaiserhof, below) and you know the world is sick. You may say that he was sick too - but it is a common mistake to believe that sick drawings indicate a sick mind, rather than a reflective indictment of society. His drawings scream indelibly of human depravity; they are an eloquently barbaric response to life and death, right through the First World War and into the wild, helpless excesses of 1920s Berlin, which rotted away the lives of all those caught up in its suicidal glee.

Grosz did not exclude himself from the excesses he depicted, and often appeared as a self-portrait on the poxy bodies of over- indulged fat cats ladling themselves over the bodies of equally poxy whores. I believe he used blood, human excrement and urine for colour; some of his brothel drawings glow with the acid-greeny yellows and nicotine- stain browns of serious lowlife. Such a display of disgust is partly due to the voyeuristic fascination the artist has with the crudest behaviour of the human animal - for war, disease, persecution and injustice are the mothers of satire.

As someone whose mother had ambitions for her son to join the Civil Service - the Post Office, maybe - Grosz was a magnificent failure. His father, a warden in a Masonic Hall in the Baltic town of Stolp, died when Grosz was only six. But he must have had a subconscious influence on his son, who remembered his father's nimble drawings and practical jokes (one night he scared George's sister Martha and her friends by hanging a nightdress on a rake to make a "ghost"). Years later Grosz played many a Dada-inspired role; one being to dress up as a Prussian general, complete with monocle, and swagger along the streets of Berlin swiping prosperous Berliners with his gloves as they passed by.

Along with other critics of Nazi Germany, Grosz left Berlin for America in the 1930s. Many believe that there he fell in love with the American Dream, and so lost his edge and his direction. But I believe he remained true to the complex nature of his make-up and attempted to find himself as an artist in a new environment, with an understandable desire to belong. Life itself may have deserted him for a time, making him feel like an uprooted plant - and then he was criticised for not showing the old acid response to his surroundings. Why the hell should he? He was only a human being trying to rebuild his broken life. There are always too many people out there who want someone to uphold their own self-righteous indignation, while remaining more selfish themselves than a newborn pig.

Just because you may be a poet doesn't mean that you have to be poetic every day. George Grosz loathed do-gooders - and my father would have agreed with that, too.

'The Berlin of George Grosz': Royal Academy, W1 (0171 494 5615), Thurs to 8 Jun.


Ralph Steadman's The Grosz Bone Fight (opposite) brings together many of the characters the artist has created during a lifetime of satirical drawing. Approximately 86x61cms wide, it contains plenty of faces familiar to Steadman's fans, from sources as varied as his 'biography' of Leonardo da Vinci and his illustrations for the hallucinatory Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now the IoS, in conjunction with the Royal Academy, is delighted to be able to offer the original of this drawing, worth pounds 5,000, as a prize to the reader who suggests the most apt alternative title and/or caption for it; five runners-up will each receive a pair of tickets and a catalogue to the RA's forthcoming 'Berlin of George Grosz' exhibition. Suggestions on a postcard to GROSZ: IoS Review, 1 Canada Sq, London E14 5DL, to arrive by Wed 26 Mar. Usual competition rules apply.