Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Inaugural galleries: George Grosz at the Hirshhorn

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GroszAttack1915.jpgThe Hirshhorn’s newly-installed George Grosz gallery is relentless.

First, there is a 1936 drawing of a World War I veteran sitting in a wheelchair, alone. He’s missing one eye, maybe two. His cheeks, neck and lips are all scarred. He appears to be toothless. He’s broken, but still he wears his war medals on his chest with pride. The ribbons are colorful — but the medals are the same color as the buttons on his coat. And worth about as much, we can hear Grosz thinking. Lot of good that war did. It’s still with us.

A couple artworks later is another drawing, Liquidation, in simple black-and-white. In the lower third of the drawing a soldier wears a jaunty cap and a fitted coat with epaulets. In the near ground, on the right-hand side of the drawing is the soldier’s hand, in which he holds his gun. Directly above the gun is a pile of bodies, all of which lay splayed beneath a barred window. We’ve just — just — walked in on an atrocity.

This gallery features only Groszes: a couple paintings and many works on paper, most made between the two World Wars. In nearly every image Grosz condemns the horrors of the Great War, warns of the emergent Nazi menace, or eviscerates the quiet complicity of Germans who were shopping, dining or whoring while the war machine whirred and while the Nazis grew more powerful. You may not have committed any atrocities yourself, Grosz says, but if you had been a greater citizen, you might have stopped what happened in the teens. You didn’t. You can still stop the men in brown shirts if you care to. But do you? Remember, you are responsible for what your leaders do in your name and what they do will forever be a part of your history…

GroszThunderbeard.jpgHirshhorn curator Kristen Hileman has installed this mini-exhibition, which is drawn entirely from the Hirshhorn’s collection. It is a curatorial achievement of unusual crispness and clarity. It is plainly intended as a gut-punch-of-a-reminder that no matter how much America wants to turn from 43 to 44 as a way of ridding our conscience of the torturing, killing and extra-legal depravity that was enabled by the Bush administration, we’ll be living with it for the rest of our lives. Hileman is effectively joining her voice to Grosz’s: They were our leaders. An entire nation stood by. Look at how the horrors and the horrible to which Grosz objected are still with his country. Now think about what America will have to live with.

In a way, these Groszes are nothing new. Many recall Goya’s great print portfolio about the French occupation of Spain, Disasters of War. The works here demonstrate that artists can aim high — and that they can connect.

Liquidation, the aforementioned 1918-19 drawing of the soldier with the gun and his pile of bodies, updates any one of several Goya Disasters prints, with one difference: Goya often shows us the moment before death or rape is inflicted. Grosz shows us the moment after.

We don’t see only the ‘Liquidator’ after he has killed; in The Murder (1923) we see an apparently wealthy gentleman who has just rushed into a room and knocked over a chair. In his hand is a smoking gun. On the right-hand-side of the drawing is a pulled-back curtain, Grosz’s way of emphasizing — again — that we just walked in on something. We may not know exactly what that something is, but we’ve got a pretty good idea — and it’s plain enough that the man with the smoking gun is responsible for it.

‘Yo lo vi,’ I saw it, Goya wrote on one of the Disasters. In Liquidation and The Murder Grosz goes a step further: You saw it, he says (and he emphasizes our voyeurism with that curtain, with our proximity to the soldier’s back). Now, what are you going to do about it? Grosz knew the answer, too: Nothing. As if to drive home that point, in 1915 he drew The Attack, at top: A beating is administered under a full moon and under a street light. A dog runs away and a man on a balcony looks on, passively.

GroszFamily.jpgGrosz never stopped trying to impel viewers to responsibility and to action. In 1928, just after the Nazis’ first Nuremberg rally, just after Goebbels took over the Nazi propaganda apparatus and as “Mein Kampf” was being published for the second time, Grosz painted Thunderbeard, A Man with Opinion (above). The Nazi brownshirt is surrounded by a bather, a shopper and a businessman busy reading the paper while in some kind of seaside cabana. All are happily ignoring the menace in their midst, Grosz’s message is clear: You may be ignorant, but you’re still responsible for he whom you are ignoring.

Four years later, in 1932, the year the Nazis won 230 seats in the Reichstag and became Germany’s most powerful political party, Grosz hit the same theme more forcefully in A Little Child Shall Lead Them (Family). A comfortable bourgeois smokes a cigar and drinks tea, and a housefrau happily knits while (cluelessly) reading Spengler’s “The Decline of the West.” In front of them, facing us, is their son. He’s shooting a machine gun and smiling. You’re ignoring the evil in your midst, Grosz says. You are responsible for what happens under your nose.

GroszPainteroftheHole.jpgThe last painting in the gallery is one of Grosz’s masterpieces, The Painter of the Hole I (1948, at right). It shows a painter working so intently re-painting the same hole over and over and over again that he has managed to ignore the total devastation around him. A rat has climbed up on his canvas, and two others are sifting through discarded paintings. The painter sees none of it. I tried to use my art to make you pay attention, Grosz says. Fat lot of good it did. You ignored me. A second World War destroyed much of Europe — and, well, me too. Hileman’s hanging of The Painter of the Hole I as the conclusion to this gallery is worse than haunting. It’s predictive, and it hurts.

I’ve seen a bumper-sticker on Washington-area cars for a while now: “1.20.09, Bush’s Last Day,” it promises. Well, sort of. Hileman has put together a horrible reminder that lo vimos: We did not stop it. Just as Germany had to live with the the absurdities and the horrors of World War I and just as Germany has to live with the legacy of its Nazi past, so must Americans now live with what was done in the name of our country by the the outgoing regime. Getting past the Bush atrocities is not as simple as swearing in the new guy.

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