Today I’m going to try to describe a nearly wordless book about an artist I’m not all that familiar with, by an artist I’m not all that familiar with. If I descend into potted history and bland statements, that will be why.
George Grosz – I probably could force Blogger to display the original German spelling of his name, but I don’t have the energy for that this morning – was a German painter and caricaturist of the early 20th century (1893-1959). As you probably can guess from the intersection of the time, place, and field, Grosz was artistically radical and politically engaged: he was strongly anti-Nazi from the earliest days, moderately Communist (but, like so many others, disillusioned after a visit to the Soviet Union), and generally anti-clerical and anti-“high society.” He escaped Germany with his family just as Hitler rose to power, living in the US for the last twenty-five years of his life before dying in an accident in postwar Berlin very soon after his return there.
Lars Fiske is a cartoonist and artist and maker of other kinds of books; he’s Norwegian. His cartooning style is not a million miles away from Grosz’s paintings: both are complex, full of overlapping elements and extreme caricature. And, maybe a decade ago, maybe not quite that long, he made a book about Grosz’s life. In 2017, Fantagraphics published a US edition as Grosz . I didn’t see any indication of a translator, but the text is minimal: Fiske may have done it himself.
Grosz is a potted life, made somewhat more elliptical by being wordless. We see Grosz doing things, and have chapter titles (with what I think are quotes from Grosz) and place/time tags, but we’re not told the meanings of events and have to piece it all together ourselves. But we can follow it pretty well: Gorsz was a dandy of a young man, with big ideas for art, served in the army in the Great War where he apparently was wounded, loved American culture and strongly criticized German society, was involved in radical movements both artistic (Dada) and societal (Communism), ran afoul of growing oppression in Germany throughout the ’20s, and eventually got away to the US, where his life calmed down substantially.
Fiske’s art is extremely energetic, mostly black-and-white with some pops of color (red in particular) and a beige-ish overlay with geometric shapes of white cut out. Gestures are large, faces are caricatured, and he uses strong diagonals throughout – sometimes to divide actions into overlapping panels, sometimes as defining elements, sometimes as vanishing-point lines that he leaves in the drawing, sometimes just to be there. His drawings are visually dense: this is not a book to scan quickly.
I found I got a decent sense of the high points of Grosz’s life, and came to like the hawk-nosed guy, who is a bit of a sex-mad loose cannon in Fiske’s telling. Probably not just in Fiske’s telling, too, and to the end of his life, frankly: Grosz died from injuries sustained by falling down the stairs after a long night drinking. Which is definitely a colorful way to go, especially in your mid-sixties.
Even if you don’t care about Grosz – I didn’t before I read this – Fiske’s strong, assured cartooning and his aggressive linework make this a really visually interesting comic to read.