The Lecture (aka Letter to an Anti-Semite)
Georg Ehrenfried Gross was born in Berlin in 1893, studying at the Dresden Academy (1909–11), Berlin’s School of Arts and Crafts (1912–14) and the Atelier Colarossi, Paris (1913). He served twice during the First World War: having enlisted in 1914, he was discharged on medical grounds, rejoining in 1917 and again being discharged as unfit. In 1916 he changed his name to George Grosz to indicate his admiration for American life and culture and from 1917–20 was a prominent member of the German anti-Bourgeois Dada movement. Postwar Grosz channeled his fierce anti-militarism into satirical, politically excoriating works, and was repeatedly prosecuted on the grounds of obscenity and blasphemy. In 1933, only days before Hitler’s accession to the Chancellorship of Germany, Grosz moved to New York to avoid persecution and to take up the offer of a teaching post. In his absence, he was stripped of his German citizenship and a number of his books and portfolios were destroyed.
The lecture is one of two works in the Ben Uri Collection that commemorate the brutal death of Grosz’s friend, the radical Jewish writer and anarchist Erich Mühsam (1878–1934), a long-time critic of successive German political regimes, who was tortured and murdered in Oranienburg concentration camp. To the National Socialists, Mühsam, as a Jew, was the definition of everything worth hating – even though, according, to Grosz, he was ‘actually a completely harmless, idealistic anarchist’. Grosz shows only Mühsam’s head, brutally shorn and branded and with a noose around his neck (Mühsam’s wife was informed that he had hanged himself); beneath him a copy of the Talmud has been speared by a dagger. A thuggish officer grasping a knuckle-duster, his face red and contorted with rage, points to the image on a lecture board while his audience slavers with anticipation or appreciation. Both these works are part of a larger disturbing series commemorating the writer (see also The Interrogation, 1938) created in America although Grosz later largely abandoned his satirical work for landscapes and still-lifes. In 1937 Grosz’s work was included, in his absence, in the infamous 1937 ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition that opened in Munich before touring throughout Germany and Austria. He became a naturalised American citizen in 1938 and published his autobiography, A Little Yes and a Big No in New York in 1946, but, disillusioned with the ‘American Dream’, he returned to postwar Berlin in 1959 and died shortly afterwards.
This work (together with The Interrogation) was unveiled at a special ceremony at Ben Uri in Boundary Road, St John’s Wood, London on 30 January 2013. This marked the 80th anniversary of the day on which Adolf Hitler succeeded to the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933 and the donation to the museum by Sally, Richard and Andrew Kalman in memory of their late father Andras Kalman (1919–2007). He was a Hungarian émigré, who came to the UK to study in 1939 and later founded the Krane Calman Gallery, and whose own immediate family perished in the Holocaust.