George Grosz (German, 1893-1959), 'Apocalyptic Landscape,' 1936. Watercolor and ink on paper, 17 by 24 3/4 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Frederick Ziman

George Grosz (German, 1893-1959)

Apocalyptic Landscape, 1936
Watercolor and ink on paper, 17 x 24 3/4 in.
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Frederick Ziman

George Grosz’s reputation rests on the daring paintings he made in Weimar Berlin, reflecting post–World War I life there and the disillusionment many European intellectuals felt in the wake of the war. Grosz had shifted in the early 1910s from work that reflected his classical training to an embrace of expressionism. His commitment to the avant-garde deepened during the war, accelerated by a mental breakdown he suffered due to combat experiences in the German army. From 1918 through the early 1930s, he created scores of images--as a painter, illustrator, and caricaturist--that indicted inept bureaucrats, villainous capitalists, and immoral politicians. The targets of his vitriolic satire were members of the establishment whose self-interest, he believed, condemned society to moral bankruptcy. Grosz drew fully from the modernist arsenal--bold colors, energetic and jumbled compositions, distorted figures, and cubistgeometries--to transmit his vision.

During the summer of 1932, Grosz taught at the Art Students League in New York. He went back to Berlin that fall, only to escape the Nazis narrowly in January 1933 (the month Adolf Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor) and return to New York, where he settled. He resumed teaching at the League and enjoyed increasing success, with major shows at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938, the Museum of Modern Art in 1941, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1954. Grosz remained in America until 1959, when he returned to Germany, dying there that year.

Early on in New York, Grosz worked primarily in watercolor, alternately celebrating his adopted metropolis and portraying scenes of horror. The latter images recall the apocalyptic landscapes his fellow Berlin expressionist Ludwig Meidner painted in 1912 and 1913, but they also are tied to Grosz’s own nightmarish battlefield memories.

By 1936, the year Grosz produced Apocalyptic Landscape, the Nazis had spent several years consolidating their authority through violence. On February 27, 1933, they burned the Reichstag (Parliament) building in Berlin. In a five-day blood purge that started on June 30, 1934, they murdered nearly eighty of Hitler’s political opponents alleged to have plotted against him and eliminated members of the Nazi party’s radical wing. With the death of German president Paul von Hindenburg on August 2, Hitler claimed the title Führer und Reichskanzler (Leader and Chancellor of the Reich), formally becoming head of both state and government--in effect, Germany's dictator. To Grosz, an artist already highly sensitive to political corruption and violence, these and subsequent events in his homeland portended disaster for Europe.

Grosz abstracts the scene in Apocalyptic Landscape by activating the entire sheet. The orb at the upper right and faint horizon line subtly suggest a landscape. Yet the overall patterning heightens the work’s abstraction and provokes a sense of omnipresent terror. A master of the watercolor medium, Grosz here created a strikingly modern painting that is at once beautiful and horrific.

--Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art