It is a full and comprehensive object lesson, a panoramic view of life, at once art and historical document, a chronicle and not an entertainment…
So wrote Max Herrmann-Neisse, Expressionist critic and longtime friend and sitter for George Grosz, of his Ecce Homo suite. A portfolio of 84 lithographs and 16 colour reproductions printed by offset lithography, Ecce Homo was published in January of 1923, though many of the original drawings were completed some years before.
The suite depicts a decrepit Berlin, its sole inhabitants the lecherous and begrimed, middle-aged, middle-class society whose grotesque lives spill wantonly from boudoirs and bar rooms into the city streets.
Though Grosz’s images captured the seething corruption that had grown out of hyper-inflation and the political turmoil of the early 1920s, they were ill received by the authorities. Following their publication, Grosz was prosecuted for offending the sense of modesty and morality of the German public: 24 of the plates were confiscated; a great number of the original drawings were destroyed; Grosz and his associates were each fined, Grosz’s total penalties across the trial amounting to 6,000 marks.
The attention Ecce Homo received from the establishment was in part due to its huge edition size: the series was published in 5 editions, with a total of 10,000 printings. Of these, the first two ‘deluxe’ editions and countless copies of the other three editions have almost entirely been lost to the public book-burnings of the Nazis in 1933.
Recognising their historical and artistic value, in 1965 the printing firm Brussel and Brussel attempted to recover and restore what little remained of the suite, reproducing the third edition on smaller paper and at a reduced edition size, as did the Grove Press a year later. The prints pictured here are from the original and more scarce 1922 printing of that edition, their colour and depth of line much richer than the later reprints.
Grosz’s work has the objective power of Goya’s Los Caprichos, and it is remarkable that in such a hostile environment and with such provocative material he survived the wrath of those he lampooned. Writing on the volatile Germany of the 1920s, Grosz remarked that he was a minute part of this chaos…the splinter that was miraculously saved when the wood went up in the flames of barbarism. We can be thankful, too, that some of his work escaped with him.