My father, the famous artist

To celebrate the great George Grosz, see his art and his son. By Rosie Millard

Marty Grosz, Paloma Picasso and Julian Lennon must be fellow sufferers. For any child, the weight of bearing the same surname as an internationally famed artist at a distance of only one generation should be sufficient to stunt any creative gifts. Marty's a brave man, then, coming over from America to play jazz at the George Grosz retrospective at the Royal Academy.

Admittedly, he's hardly an amateur. Grosz Junior and his jazz guitar have appeared at festivals all over the world. He is a prolific recording artist who cut his first record in 1950, has made star appearances in movies such as Tootsie and Bullets Over Broadway and is a renowned jazz champion of original and rare works. But compared to his "old man", as he calls his father, the radical satirist George Grosz, he's not quite in the same league.

Not that he minds too much. There were distinct benefits in having parents who courted amid the wild scenes of Twenties Dadaist Berlin, whose artistic exploits included climbing up ladders and pouring buckets of water over people's heads. "Sure, we kids were overshadowed," says Marty. "But when my father was working and everything was going right, it was a 24-hour- a-day performance."

Indeed, Grosz, who died in 1959, would have been proud of his son, not least for his chosen musical style, his twang and his relentless Yankee cliches ("So, you'll be having bangers and mash for dinner, tonight, right?"). For while his work encapsulates Twenties Berlin, Americana was dear to George Grosz.

Born Georg Gross in 1893, he Americanised his name in 1916, at the height of the First World War, in which he fought. At the same time he began to play the banjo, smoke a pipe and wear clothes tailored in the American style. It was an outward symbol of his growing estrangement from the German establishment. After the war, Grosz pursued a highly politicised artistic life. Living in the heart of bohemian Berlin, he contributed to several left-wing magazines. His cartoons, paintings and drawings depicted a scorching yet passionate view of Berlin's decadence and corruption. His unblinking attack on the turmoil that was post-war Germany projected a desire for work "tough, brutal, transparent, an art that hurts. We've got enough lullabies," he wrote.

When the Reichstag was torched in 1933, Grosz found himself in the unenviable position of a Cassandra. The Fascist rule he had lobbied so vehemently against had arrived; disillusioned by the inability of either Communism or art to wreak political change, and suspecting his art had, perversely, heightened the fame of the Nazi cause, Grosz left for a teaching job at New York's Art Student's League, and took his family.

"Having been through the First World War, he could see it all happening again," says Marty Grosz. "He forecast the coming of Hitler; he had caricatured him as early as 1923. The Nazis declared him Bolshevik enemy No 1. The Brownshirts raided his studio several times. He was openly critical of the regime - but no one wanted to know."

Marty was three when George took his wife Eva and sons West. "We travelled on the Bremen, which had the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing. When we were a day off New York," he says, "I remember watching a red sea-plane catapulting off the deck, carrying bags of airmail into Manhattan."

The family was thrown into American life in a similarly abrupt manner. "We lived in a hotel in Manhattan for a few months, then my parents moved to a house in the New York suburbs." It became a haven for fellow European intelligentsia driven away by war. "Our home was never without foreigners, people my father would vouch for, in order that they could get jobs." Publishers, professors from the University of Berlin, teachers who'd escaped from concentration camps, all came to stay. Bertolt Brecht was a frequent visitor.

The experience of exile effected Grosz deeply. Although at first he depicted Manhattan with his characteristic zest, he began to despair that his earlier work was unsuitable for the New World. "He couldn't resume his stance," explains Marty. "He was a satirist, but he refused to bite the hand that fed him. In addition, he didn't really know the language or the customs of America. All the references had changed."

While Marty and his brother Peter enthusiastically embraced their new life, their father's periods of artistic dormancy lengthened. He and his guests talked in German long into the night. "I would hear them. There was a lot of unhappiness. Guilt, at having left; but also frustration. My father would get drunk, frequently; and rail at those who had sat back and done nothing. He would say, 'Hitler rolled in, as if we hadn't been there'."

None the less, Grosz's reputation was not completely overlooked. He appeared on the cover of Life magazine; he had his portrait taken by Robert Penn for Time. "I would be introduced as Grosz's son," says Marty. "The art establishment was so conservative then," he explains. "People would go to museums for a bit of peace and quiet. No one knew about modern art or Dada. All my schoolmates had boats and played tennis at country clubs. They thought my father was shocking."

And dangerous. "Everyone thought we were Jewish immigrants. My father received anti-Semitic hate mail. At the same time we were suspected of being spies. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia people accused us of being Nazis. It was total paranoia. I mean, this wasn't England. There were hardly Germans leaping out of planes over New York."

Marty became used to acting as a quasi-extension of his father. He even managed to get expelled from high school at the same age as Grosz Senior had. And he showed artistic talent. "I was always drawing, cartoons and things. My father's friends used to pat me on the head and say, 'He's just like his father.' When I was about 17 I even enrolled at the old man's classes. They were wonderful. Packed."

And, by all accounts, fairly laid-back. "My father was a wonderful draughtsman; but in the back of the class people were playing chess," says Marty. "GIs claiming money off the government for college courses. My dad simply said, 'I pay attention to people who really care about drawing. As long as the others pay their fees, I don't care what they do.' And after the classes, he'd give these wonderful talks on art."

But Marty realised it would be impossible to match his father. "It was tough to carry that name. In order to grow, I had to get out of his shadow." When he was a child, he discovered a ukulele in the attic, and strummed the jazz tunes Grosz would whistle around the house. But his interest took hold when he was at boarding school; hitching to hear a big band in Boston caused his expulsion. Grosz was delighted his son was bent on such an unconventional path. "He loved it. I was 15 and my father was having a party, got together with the novelist Ulrich Becher, who had a concertina, and we decided to give an impromptu concert. We played 'Blue Skies' and 'Old Man River'; my parents were so surprised! After that, I was driven. My mother wanted me to go to university, but my father thought everyone should have the chance to do his own thing. He'd come up to my room and have me play along to old records. He'd bring a bottle of wine, two cigars, and his enthusiasm."

On the face of it, growing up with George Grosz was an extraordinary experience. "He was such a performer. He was always doing little songs, putting sheets over his head, acting out stories. And painting. But behind the fun there was a deep embitterment. And his drinking. Drinking, and not working. In the end the periods of not working got longer. Eventually he just stopped."

In the Fifties Eva persuaded George to try living in Berlin once more. "Just for half of each year. Everyone thought he could get his old flair back. But he knew it would never be the same, and it wasn't. He just wondered what the whole point of everything, even art itself, was. Jackson Pollock and those guys were around. My father's day had passed." Including, one suspects, a belief that art combined with a political message could change the world. After what would be his final return to Germany, Grosz collapsed after a drinking bout and died.

He is buried in Berlin, the city with which he'll always be synonymous; yet it is not Grosz, the artist who changed his name to appear more cosmopolitan, but his son Marty who is the true internationalist. "When the time comes, where will I be buried? I have loose views about national boundaries. I don't care. As long as it's not in outer space."

'The Berlin of George Grosz: Drawings, Watercolours and Prints 1912-1930', opens Thurs, RA, London W1 (0171-439 7438) to 8 June; Marty Grosz in Concert at the RA, Sat, 7pm (0171-494 5665). Tom Lubbock will review the exhibition on 25 March.

Rosie Millard is the BBC's Arts Correspondent

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders