George Grosz: An Autobiography, translated by Nora Hodges. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 326 pp. $19.95. ''Pictures have an inexplicable magic. The imitation of life was then taken for life itself. . . .'' Or so says George Grosz, sounding more like a fugitive cartoonist than a German-American expressionist painter.
Art, an artist might insist, is the inspired interpretation of reality - and neither magic nor imitation. But then, George Grosz was not that far from being a cartoonist.
Considered an expressionist by many, he thought of himself as part of the Dada movement in Europe, whose interpretations of reality took form often in incongruous, sometimes ugly abstractions. But Grosz was not one to be too abstract. He was an unsubtle artist whose thinking leaned more toward the obvious.
Mostly his drawings and paintings were satiric comments on political and social corruption of the times after World War I, even though he might have at times yearned to be at the top of that very heap.
In reading Grosz's autobiography, one cannot separate writer from artist, for the words are only an extension of his painting in revealing the man himself - uncomplicated, unimaginative, naive, and sensuous in relishing the delights that the world promised.
He considered himself an observer rather than a reformer. Thus his vivid dislike for the German class system and the general corruption within the government may have been based more on his personal restrictions rather than on ultimate idealism.
Grosz had unquestionable talent. His book is surprising in many ways. He reports on himself with strict honesty or not at all. He has little to say about his wife and children. He reveals a very ambivalent ambition, for the fact that he was dismissed from school seems to have pointed him toward studying art as much as did any inner drive; without the high school diploma, most doors for earning a living were closed to him in Germany under the Kaiser.
Even then, he continued to wish passionately to be an illustrator or a cartoonist, professions in which the rewards seemed more certain. Indeed, he sought anything that would lift him out of his middle-class confinement and establish him as respectable and affluent.
In writing about it, he seems totally unaware that he led a dull life. His excitement was mostly in his reaction to commonplace events. In place of actual adventure, he literally wrote about his dreams, which he may have felt had mystical significance. He recorded lengthy impressions of mostly unimpressive people who influenced him.
Just before the rise of Hitler, he decided to come to America, on one of his mystical impulses. The modest job offered him was teaching a summer school class at the Art Student League. He explained his liking for the United States, where he became a citizen, in warm, reasonable terms, but the country never supplied him with the golden gifts he felt he deserved.
In 1959, the last year of his life, he returned to Germany to live, as if to renew a passionate quest for a satisfaction he had not attained.
The story of his life can teach us all more than he intended.