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0031 Lovorka Magaš and Petar Prelog, George Grosz and Croatian Art between the Two World Wars

RIHA Journal 0031 | 7 November 2011

George Grosz and Croatian Art between the Two World Wars

Lovorka Magaš, Petar Prelog

Originally published in Croatian (in a slightly different version) as:

"Nekoliko aspekata utjecaja Georgea Grosza na hrvatsku umjetnost između dva svjetska rata”, in: Radovi Instituta za povijest umjetnosti 33 (2009), 227-240.

Translation initiated by:

Institut za povijest umjetnosti / Institute of Art History, Zagreb


The paper analyses the key aspects of George Grosz's influence on Croatian art between the two World Wars. A number of artists, especially the members of the association Zemlja, considered Grosz to be an author of similar ideological belief, who advocated an active role of art in society. Grosz's standpoints thus indirectly influenced the formation of the overall cultural atmosphere, marked by the polarization of the entire artistic scene. The artist became one of the key reference points and a figure cited by those who exerted a crucial influence on the formation of Croatian artistic scene between the two World Wars – the writer and one of the most prominent intellectuals Miroslav Krleža and visual artists Krsto Hegedušić and Ljubo Babić. The paper also addresses the circumstances regarding the organization of Grosz's solo exhibition in Zagreb in 1932, along with an analysis of the reception of his work among Croatian art critics.

  1. The role and importance of the painter and graphic artist George Grosz (1893-1950) has already been firmly determined in art history as particularly significant in the key artistic turmoil of the first half of the twentieth century.1 As one of the most influential personalities of avant-garde movements of the period, Grosz participated in the formation of innovative stylistic and visual approaches and techniques. On the other hand, his overall activity – as artist and theorist – displayed the full strength of the influence of ideological discourses on artistic practices. In that sense, any attempt to examine his intriguing life and complex oeuvre – which provides an exhaustive, in-depth picture of the divided German society in the period between the end of World War I and Hitler's accession to power – offers a myriad of different perspectives and interpretative possibilities.

  2. In many aspects, the case of George Grosz and his influence on Croatian art differed from the influence of other artists who played a crucial role in the development of Croatian modernism. Manet's and Cézanne's work appealed to Croatian artists in certain aspects of composition and modelling. Such reflection of the vital points of modernism in painting has proven to be a crucial paradigm on the path towards the understanding of a painting as an autonomous visual fact. However, Grosz's influence was not limited solely to the formal aspect, which implies the acceptance of particular elements of visual syntax; there is hardly any evidence of literal adoption of Grosz's style in the work of Croatian artists. Nonetheless, affinities on a formal level indisputably exist and bear significance. Croatian art history was prone to assign them primarily to the inclination towards the "primitive", in the context of the formation of the elements of Neue Sachlichkeit as a reaction to Expressionism and its influence on the developments in Croatian art.2 The influence of Grosz's views and artistic production on Croatian art between the two World Wars, discussed and interpreted in this paper, was by no means univocal, but can be discerned and analysed on several levels. The most prominent is certainly the ideological level: a number of Croatian artists active in the interwar period, especially those belonging to the Association of Artists Zemlja (Udruženje umjetnika Zemlja),3 saw Grosz as an artist of similar ideological beliefs who, through analogous visual language, advocated an active role of art in society. Thus Grosz's standpoints indirectly affected the formation of the overall cultural atmosphere, marked by the polarization of the entire artistic scene. In that sense, through frequent referral to Grosz, Croatian art criticism also stepped forward to new modes of interpreting a work of art. Furthermore, an adequate reception of Grosz's work, especially his graphic oeuvre, made a significant contribution to the recognition of graphic art as an essential medium of social art. Hence the artist became one of the key reference points and a figure cited by those who exerted a crucial influence on the formation of Croatian artistic scene between the two World Wars – the writer Miroslav Krleža and visual artists Krsto Hegedušić and Ljubo Babić. In this sense, Krleža's views can be recognized as particularly important in the evaluation of the acceptance of Grosz's work. This paper will also discuss in detail the reception of Grosz's solo exhibition in Zagreb (1932) in which notably graphic works were on display (cf. figs. 1, 2, 3, 4). Precisely the modes of understanding of his work, revealed in the writings of prominent critics and artists, would show the complexity and entanglement of all relevant aspects of his influence.

* * *

  1. Like Filip Latinovicz, the main character of one of Krleža's key novels,4 who stands out as a paradigm of an artist of interwar Croatia in search of his own identity and the definitions of the identity of his native environment, Grosz was also an artist continually tormented by the same questions.5 This is testified by his personal, as well as artistic path: after his initial inclination towards the Expressionists, he participated in the formation of the Berlin Dada immediately after the First World War, finally to become one of the key protagonists of the left-wing fraction of German neonaturalism. With the end of the war, Expressionism, with its firmly determined stylistic features and meanings, could no longer adequately cover all the problems of everyday society and produce a reaction to them. The desire for new ways of artistic engagement within society was perceived as an opposition to Expressionism, although these emerging stylistic currents had inherited several key formal elements precisely from Expressionism.6 In Croatian art, Expressionist tendencies – based on the reformulation of European models – in 1920s gave way to complex neorealist tendencies of different provenance. The influence of German art, especially art engaging in the issues of contemporary society and thus containing a "critical" component, had grown increasingly important for the younger generation of artists.7 This influence, evident in the attempt to comment on the everyday society, i.e. the existential problems of the individual that can be applied to society in general, emerged within the activities and exhibitions of several artists in mid-1920s, denominated by Ivanka Reberski as "the prologue of Zemlja".8

1 George Grosz, Dismissed / Ausgebotet, c. 1920, lithograph / paper, 750 x 540 mm, National and University Library Print Collection, Zagreb, inv. no. GZGS 407 grosz 2 (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011. Photo: Goran Vranić)

  1. Grosz's work, as well as his opinions on the role of art in society, were by then undoubtedly familiar to Croatian artists, since translations of his early key texts appeared in Croatian periodicals in mid-1920s. In 1924 the periodical Radnička borba9 published the translation of an excerpt of one of Grosz's programmatic and frequently cited texts, which appeared under the title "Zu meinen neuen Bildern" in the magazine Das Kunstblatt in 1921.10 It was followed by another important text by Grosz published in the periodical Književna republika, which can be considered a starting point of the reception of his theoretical and political views in Croatia.11 Such interpretation is attested by several arguments: besides reporting and explicating the statements which form the basis of the author's attitude towards art (the demand for revolutionary art which must express political opinions in a revolutionary manner; the idea of contemporary art which depends on the middle class and dies with it; the opinion of the importance of ideological attitudes of the artist against irrelevant biographical positions), the periodical which published the text had a considerable influence within the national cultural scene of the period.12 Furthermore, the translator of Grosz's text was probably Miroslav Krleža himself,13 an author and critic who would become most responsible for the dissemination of Grosz's artistic and ideological heritage. Krleža's key text, published in Jutarnji list (1926) and again in Književna republika (1927),14 in many ways determined the general attitude of the future members of the Zemlja Association towards the position and tasks of art in society, and influenced the formal level of their artistic production. Moreover, the text on Grosz bore a programmatic meaning for the Association of Artists Zemlja, and presented a source of direct stimuli.

  2. George Grosz occupied a prominent position in Krleža's complex and often contradictory views on contemporary art. In the period of over a decade following the First World War Krleža assumed firm standpoints on the most important issues in Croatian art. He argued primarily against the tendency to form a national visual expression conforming to the "Vidovdan ideology" of the sculptor Ivan Meštrović, based on the idea of South Slav unification. Krleža considered Meštrović's merging of mythological patterns and derivations of secessionist syntax in service of a political idea (which resulted in a repressive multinational Yugoslav state) to be generally harmful and especially unproductive for national artistic development. He also formed a negative opinion towards avant-garde tendencies in European art, and hence towards the reflections of such currents in local environment (primarily the artwork exhibited in the Spring salon).15 In that sense, certain segments of the complex structure of realist tendencies of 1920s would provide a firm and understandable foothold for Krleža's interpretations of future developments in Croatian art.

2 George Grosz, Ecce Homo (Let Swim those who Can / Schwimme wer schwimmen kann), 1919-20, lithograph / paper, 585 x 460 mm, Gallery of Fine Arts, Split, inv. no. 1534 (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011. Photo: Gallery of Fine Arts, Split)

3 George Grosz, Bourgeois World / Bürgerliche Welt, 1918, lithograph / paper, 500 x 680 mm, Gallery of Fine Arts, Split, inv. no. 1535 (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011. Photo: Gallery of Fine Arts, Split)

4 George Grosz, Eva, my Friend / Eva, meine Freundin, 1918, lithograph / paper, 650 x 500 mm, National and University Library Print Collection, Zagreb, inv. no. GZGS 406 grosz 1 (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011. Photo: Goran Vranić)

  1. In considering Krleža's above stated views on art – especially his attitude towards the avant-garde tendencies and the establishment of Croatian painting through the imaginary evolutional line from Josip Račić to Ljubo Babić and further on – Grosz, as an artist who made a significant contribution to European avant-garde, at first seems an unusual choice to impose upon the entire national artistic scene. However, a careful analysis brings forth the conclusion that the common ground of Grosz's and Krleža's opinions was still solid enough.16 For that reason, the possibility of transposition of certain of Grosz's views and elements of his visual language into Croatian art was relatively easy and desirable, especially in the moment when the influence of the left-wing fraction grew stronger on the cultural scene. In his text published in Jutarnji list and Književna republika, Krleža analyses and carefully describes Grosz's work, especially the artist's thematic and formal orientation and ideological position, and detects all the elements he considered crucial to contemporary socially engaged art. The first and foremost is advocating the necessity of connecting art and the social situation in which it is produced. In other words, art is and must be a reflection of the state of the society.17 Secondly, in the context of Grosz's work Krleža also stresses the "tendency" in art as one of the key features of artistic creation.18 Furthermore, inspired by Grosz's opinions on the active role of the artist in society, the writer clearly states that the artist himself is the one to take "sides" in the contemporary "battle of the classes".19 Such attitude can certainly be interpreted as unambiguous criticism of art-for-art's-sake. Finally, he distinctly emphasises Grosz and his work as the best model for any "revolutionary" artistic orientation, both in ideological and formal sense.20 Thus, three years prior to the foundation of the Association of Artists Zemlja Krleža wrote a kind of its "programme before programme" – he articulated the basic guidelines to be followed in the process of drawing up the Association's programme and manifesto several years later. The proposals considered to be the "ideological basis" of Zemlja Association's programme, proclaimed on 22 May 1929, mention the "struggle against art-for-art's-sake" and the demand that "art should reflect the milieu and correspond to contemporary vital needs". The programme's "practical basis" imposes the collaboration with ideologically similarly oriented groups.21 The text of Zemlja's manifesto was published on the cover of the Association's first exhibition catalogue and was probably written by their president, the architect Drago Ibler. It stated that "contemporary life is imbued with social ideas", that "the issues of the collective are dominant" and that "the artist cannot break free from the demands of the new society and stand outside the collective".22 This reveals the path of key concepts which starts with Grosz, continues with Krleža as the main initiator of the transmission of ideas, and ends with the Zemlja circle, especially Krsto Hegedušić. It can therefore be concluded that the protagonists of the Zemlja Association considered relevant only one aspect of Krleža's ambivalent views on contemporary art; more precisely, the segment directly inspired by Grosz.23