George Grosz has been described as both a misanthrope and a utopian. Paintings like Cafehaus (1915) or Drinnen und Draussen [Inside and Outside] (1926), with their slatternly floozies and inflated, cruel businessmen, are prime demonstrations of this paradoxical combination: Grosz directed his hatred at the upper classes, but like all satirists, his mockery was an attempt to expose vice. His hatred was fueled by disappointment.
In a small set of eight drawings at David Nolan Gallery, made between 1927 and 1931, depicting the workaday world of small town butchers, Grosz temporarily turns away from high society antagonism, and concentrates on life as it is in the streets and shops. Here, his general misanthropy is mitigated by a competing perspective: that of admiration. Grosz, who had joined the Communist party in 1918, sought to elevate the status of even the supposedly lowliest worker, and this comes through in the drawings. The laborers who populate the grisly world of the slaughterhouse are sketched with decisive strokes; great attention is paid to the positions of their feet and hands as they work. Shoulders feature more prominently here than in almost any other artwork I can think of – the earnest stoop of a worker bearing two buckets of water or blood; the man who bows under the weight of an entire sow across his back; the satisfied shrug of a butcher standing in the doorway of his shop, its window strung with carcasses. Though we may wish to shield ourselves from such everyday violence, Grosz’s pen and pencil linger, detailing an honesty and sincere persistence among these men and women.
Here, both skill and rectitude are physical characteristics. Resigned pigs are carted to slaughter by equally resigned laborers; the images are as concerned with the drama of small-scale murder as with the correct positioning of the bucket that catches the blood. This may be partly due to Grosz’s use of the reed pen, an instrument often used for calligraphy, which he applies here to delineate the force of muscles at work, and equipment well-used, with forceful yet delicate strokes. Though bodies are plentiful and expressive in the drawings, Grosz’s usual eroticism is absent; the forms depict character rather than voluptuous desire.
As the gallery press release points out, Grosz may have made these drawings in response to a severe meat shortage in Germany at the time. His countrymen were being forced to ration a staple of their diet that was, in fatter times, so ubiquitous as to be identified with the national character. For an artist who concerned himself with the study and derision of that character as it turned increasingly ominous, meat would be doubly corporeal: the stuff of death, and the stuff of life.
–Nova Benway, Curatorial Assistant