George Grosz’s Berlin, Richard Nagy, London – review

Satirist or realist? More than any other artist, Grosz defined the glamour and doom of an inflation-ridden Weimar Republic where everything and everyone was for sale. A brilliant draughtsman, he prowled 1920s Berlin to sketch incessantly “observations dictated by my utter contempt for mankind”. In paintings, such as the prismatic cubo-futuristic “Beat of the Street”, and in savage watercolours and drawings – “The Swamp Flowers of Capitalism”, “Bourgeois World”, “Cinema Amor” – he depicted the city’s exhilarating chaos as a montage of signs, symbols, events, people: façades of houses tottering over gangsters, pimps and prostitutes; a suicide hanging from a rope; a naked tightrope walker; gorging industrialists and bankers.

Popular imagery, cartoons and the covers of westerns inspired him; he was bored by classical models and disliked the grace of Paris, “a city of idlers”. Ultimately his taste for the grotesque looks back to gothic exaggerations characterising German art since Grünewald, refreshed by Grosz’s shrill modernist colour, razor-sharp line and subtle, varied approach, as demonstrated by this excellent show of mostly works on paper.

In “Diamond Profiteers in the Café Kaiserhof”, he uses collage to give an unsettling perspective to his shady characters. The watercolour “Suicide” is suffused with a sanguine luminosity, as if the dead man bleeds out on to the paper. In “The Gloaming”, watercolour is applied wet on wet, with pen drawings above and beneath, creating spatial depth and brilliant sparkle. In “Germany, A Winter’s Tale”, a recently rediscovered sketch of a major oil lost in the 1930s, a pyramid of misery and corruption – brothels, tenements and bloated figures representing church, army, education, each turning a blind eye – is built up around a fat complacent nationalist, sitting upright with knife and fork about to carve. “We knew these types, they were all around us,” recalled Hannah Arendt on seeing Grosz’s drawings. They still are, in any 21st-century metropolis – in acknowledgment of which this show benefits the charity Global Witness.

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