GEORGE GROSZ (1893-1959) and JOHN HEARTFIELD (1891-1968)
'Life and Work in Universal City, 12:05 Noon', 1919 (photomontage)
After the war, the face of Dada began to change. Many of the Dadaists who were exiles in Zurich began to drift back to their home countries and found that life was quite different there. As they relocated to Berlin, Cologne, Hanover and some as far as New York, Dada developed an international reputation but each of these venues had its own distinctive style inspired by the artists who settled there.
In post-war Berlin, Dada became less anti-art and adopted a more political stance. Reality bit hard as the war-weary population struggled to survive the effects of economic meltdown. There was social and political disorder as Left fought Right for control of the government. In this climate the irreverent posturing of Zurich Dada would have been totally inappropriate, so Dada in Berlin emerged with a harder hitting punch.
Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, John Heartfield and George Grosz were the main artists who developed the strident political satire of Berlin Dada. The technique that most of them trusted to deliver their disparaging commentary was photomontage: a collage of photographs and text cut from contemporary newspapers and magazines. The immediacy of this photographic imagery added an air of authority to their work by physically linking their ideas to the real world. The layout of these works was influenced by the flattened and fragmented arrangements of Cubism and Futurism.
GEORGE GROSZ (1893-1959)
'The Pillars of Society'
1926 (oil on canvas)
The work of George Grosz gradually evolved from the nihilistic protest of Dada to a more focused expression of his disgust at the cruelty and decadence of the bourgeoisie. He was a skilled painter and illustrator who managed to convey his contempt in traditional media. Grosz's vitriolic drawings and paintings exposed the hypocrisy of the politicians, the press, the army, the ruling classes and their corrupt clergy. His work simply held up a mirror to their behaviour in order to reflect their vices. Grosz wrote, "Man has created an insidious system - a top and a bottom. A very few earn millions, while thousands upon thousands are on the verge of starvation. But what has this to do with art? Precisely this, that many painters and writers, in a word, all the so-called 'intellectuals' still tolerate this state of affairs without taking a stand against it......To help shake this belief and to show the oppressed the true faces of their masters is the purpose of my work".
'The Pillars of Society' is a group portrait that manages to portray 'all the true faces of their masters' in one room. In medieval art, saints were painted carrying symbolic attributes to help identify them to the illiterate. For example, Saint Peter was usually depicted holding keys as Christ told him "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven". Grosz updates this device with an outrageous dose of irony to identify his oppressors.
In the foreground we have a German officer wearing a monocle and a swastika which, in 1920, was adopted as the symbol of the Nazi party. He has a cruel face with duelling scars on his cheek and a thin slit of a mouth aggressively exposing his teeth. The attributes that he carries are a glass of beer and a sabre, symbols that expose him as a drunken warmonger. However, he is blind to his own brutality as he sees himself as a gallant hussar, illustrated by the delusional thoughts coming out of his head.
Behind him on the left is a portrait of Alfred Hugenberg, the press baron, who is wearing a chamber pot engraved with an Iron Cross as a hat. This symbolizes both the bias of his newspapers and Grosz's opinion of them. His attributes are a pencil for writing articles and a blood stained palm. Historically the palm is a symbol of peace, but stained with the bloody consequences of his newspapers' propaganda, it becomes a symbol of hypocrisy.
Behind him on the right is a portrait that looks remarkably like Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party and the first President of Germany from 1919-1925. His attributes are a leaflet that reads, "Socialism is Working" and a flag of the Weimar Republic. Grosz leaves no doubt as to what he thinks of his policies by giving him a pile of steaming faeces for brains.
At the rear of this work is a clergyman whose sanctimonious face is flushed with the long term effects of alcohol. With closed eyes he preaches from the safety of his room, blind to the reality of the burning city outside his window and ignoring the brutality of the civil war that unfolds behind his back.