Well, the Journal and Sketchbook class at Columbia College Chicago is over for this semester, though Patty and I are going to teach an abbreviated version of it in a four-day workshop at Interlochen’s College of Creative Arts. During the 15-week semester at Columbia, we asked the students to select an artist/writer and make a fifteen minute presentation on their choice to the class. The presentations this time were on Keith Haring, Dr. Seuss, Tolkien, William Blake, and Andre Breton. The best presentations were on Haring, Blake, and Dr. Seuss, with some particularly interesting facts about the latter coming up (for instance, did you know he did a lot of biting political cartoons during World War II?).
One book that I’ve tried to push students to look at has been George Grosz’s memoir ‘A Little Yes and a Big No’, though so far no-one has taken the bait. In many ways, it would be a good choice for this class. Grosz was a brilliant caricaturist as well as a painter, and every other page of the book is illustrated with a pen and ink drawing of German types from the early 1900s, done in a style that is a lot closer to art than to cartooning. By writing an autobiography at all, Grosz provided more personal written material than most visual artists. Why wouldn’t students choose this book as the basis for a presentation?
I decided to re-read it to see if I could answer the question. Let’s start with the book itself. It was published by the Dial Press in 1946, when Grosz was living in the USA. My copy is a first edition hardback, which I picked up in a bookshop years ago for twenty of your US bucks. It’s 300 pages long, but at least 100 pages of that space are given over to full page illustrations of his paintings, and the black and white pen drawings mentioned above. The memoir ranges over Grosz’s life from his childhood in Pomerania in the 1890s, until he left Germany for the USA in 1933. The translation is filled with all kinds of 1940s American slang, like “Damn! I tink dat guy was sure askin’ for it!”, which sound very odd in the memoir of a German artist. Maybe it approximates some version of German dialect that Grosz employed in the original manuscript, but it sounds stilted and somehow wrong in the English. Grosz’s tone can also be off-putting. He attempts to present himself as a man of the world, cynical and pessimistic about all men and all things – God knows, he had a right to that after serving in the Kaiser’s army in World War I. But the danger of that style, to my mind, is that it comes across to the reader like someone who is always trying to prove that they are the cleverest person in the room: just because they are right all the time doesn’t stop them from being an obnoxious little prick.
But there are many passages where Grosz drops the pose and just describe what he remembers. Here is an extract in which he talks about the work he produced after he was invalided out of the army and returned to Berlin in 1916:
“My drawings expressed my despair, hate and disillusionment . . . I drew many scenes of army life and borrowed freely from the sketches I had made in my notebook during my military career . . . I drew soldiers without noses; war cripples with crustacean-like steel arms; two medical soldiers putting a violent infantryman into a strait-jacket made of horse blanket; a one-armed soldier saluting a lady decorated with orders who was putting a cookie on his bed; a colonel, his fly open, embracing a nurse; a medical orderly emptying into a pit a pail filled with various parts of the human body. “
That could stand as companion text to the Otto Dix painting ‘The Skat Players’ that I discussed a few weeks ago. Then there are powerful memories such as this one, from the time Grosz was in an army hospital: “Next to me lay a Berlin coachman who had had part of his abdomen shot away. Half-unconscious because of continuous injections, he would mumble in Berlin dialect as he attempted to point to his stomach: ‘Look, comrade, I had all this with me. Where are my legs? I left them somewhere. If I could only remember, comrade. If I could only remember. Now I have a way in but no way out.’ He sank into sleep and died that same night without a sound, a shapeless mass.”
Grosz goes on to provide first-hand accounts of the Dada movement, of which he was one of the original members; life in the lurid and crazy years of post-war Weimar Germany; his first trips to America; the rise of the Nazis; and his permanent move to the United States in 1933. On the way Grosz throws in portraits of the many eccentrics he knew: art dealers, occultists, artists, flaneurs. And there are at least a hundred drawings like this:
Each of them combines a cartoonist’s slight exaggeration of the most unflattering feature with a true artist’s sense of form and attention to detail. The variety of facial types, shapes of head, and expressions, all delineated in that incredibly free yet exact and bold line, is delicious. He uses a vertical zig-zag composition in many of his drawings, similar to his paintings of the period, which I associate with painting styles from the 1910s to the 1920s. There’s a lot that beginning students of drawing can learn from looking at Grosz’s caricatures.
My conclusion about why students haven’t clicked with Grosz? Part of it might be to do with the culture and history of Germany around the Great War, and part of it might be to do with Grosz’s writing style. But I think mostly it’s my fault for not guiding students towards it, and for not making it an attractive enough proposition. I intend to correct this the next time Patty and I teach the J+S class during a full college semester.
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