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100 Best Paintings in London


Text by Geoffrey Smith


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George Grosz: Suicide - 1916

London, Tate

In November 1914, three months after the beginning of the Great War, George Grosz volunteered for the army. He was discharged on medical grounds in May 1915 but for the rest of the war he lived in fear of being recalled for military service. His military experiences, which included a short spell on the Western Front, confirmed and exacerbated an already strong tendency towards misanthropy.

His apoplectic rage directed at those he held responsible for taking Germany into the war as well as those who supported it, such as journalists who spewed craven patriotic propaganda, knew no bounds. Particular venom was reserved for industrialists (who are always portrayed as fat), the officer class, prostitutes and the Church. Capitalism was identified as an unequivocal evil; everyone and everything had become a commodity.

In Suicide Grosz deploys his personal lexicon of shocking images in pursuit of some of his obsessions, producing a horrifying panorama of corruption and degradation. It is an apocalyptic vision of a modern dystopia. The painting is bathed in a hellish red light; on the red streets red scavenging dogs prowl. In the foreground a man has just shot himself — his red revolver lies nearby — his head has already taken on the characteristics of a fleshless skull. Another corpse hangs from a lamp post at the corner of the street. In an indeterminate space in the top right corner of the composition (perhaps a shop window?) a near naked, hard-faced prostitute displays herself to the world; her bald and corpulent suited client leering expectantly behind her. In the distance a church, positioned centrally at the top edge of the picture stands witness to the carnage and squalor around it, symbolising its own impotence and complacency.

‘My views of the war years can be summarised: men are swine … Life has no meaning except the satisfaction of one’s appetites for food and women. There is no soul.’ The end of the war and the atmosphere of febrile decadence which characterised Berlin during the Weimar years did nothing to assuage the artist’s intense pessimism and anger. He continued to produce similarly coruscating commentaries on contemporary dissipation until his emigration to the United States in 1933 just before the Nazis gained power.

Contemporary Works

1916 Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Friederike-Maria Beer, New York, Guggenheim Museum

1916 Giorgio de Chirico: The Melancholy of Departure, London, Tate

1916 Hans Arp: Collage Made According to the Laws of Chance, Basle, Kunstmuseum

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