This is a miserable, mean, nasty little exhibition – not that you’d expect anything less when it comes to George Grosz’s wonderfully caustic art. His work is often described as satirical – yet that hardly comes close to capturing the brilliant bitterness of the appalled fury with which he attacked the degeneracy and decadence of German society during and after WWI. With his grotesque parade of bloated capitalists, cadaverous whores, decrepit generals and maimed war veterans, Grosz conveyed a sense of civilization gone to seed, of humanity overrun by violence and corruption.
The 50 works on display here, mostly small drawings, nicely trace his stylistic development – from his initially jittery, slightly tremulous line, mainly detailing bawdy or oddly grisly sexual scenes, to the bolder, more savage caricatures of his café studies, where the hideous squeeze of overlapping bodies evokes the seething cauldron of bourgeois Berlin life. And then, from about 1918 onwards, come some of his most famous, most horribly magnificent works, in which sickly watercolours are used to give a sour, sclerotic feel and his cacophony of characters are arranged into fractured, prismatic compositions.
The exhibition closes with Grosz’s street scenes of the mid-to-late 1920s, which are less well known, though all the more intriguing for it. Rather than fragmented composites, they depict entire slice-of-life vignettes in a more observational, realist style – incidents of everyday vanity and hypocrisy, such as beggars being ignored by well-heeled passers-by, or fawning old men pursuing pretty young girls. Though there’s greater humour evident in these works, the sense of disgust remains powerfully acerbic.