The current exhibition George Grosz’s Flower of the Prairie at the Dallas Museum of Art centers at four oil paintings and seventeen watercolors by the artist, commissioned by Leon Harris Jr. in 1952, to celebrate department store A. Harris & Company’s 65th anniversary. These works, nonetheless, were not what Grosz was famous for. Grosz, who fled Germany at the onset of the rise of Hitler, is most noted for his satirical political illustrations of roaring twenties. Had the artist had his choice for a retrospective show, the Dallas images probably would not have taken the center stage — according to the artist, he sold himself for the commission in the time out of a pure need for money.
The art scene in the 1950’s Big Apple was not all accommodating for painters from the old world who once flourished in the Weimar Republic and began to be marginalized when Abstract Expressionism put New York the center of the art world. In January 1952, Grosz was first contacted by Leon Harris, the young Vice President and art connoisseur of A. Harris & Company, to document the progress and burgeoning urban scenes of Dallas. He visited Dallas for five days in May 1952, 60 years ago this year. However, most of the works in the series were produced after he returned to his studio in Huntington, New York over a period of five months. They were then exhibited in October 1952 at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (the predecessor of DMA, located in Fair Park) and later New York City in 1954.
In a string of purely commercialism activities, perhaps accidentally, Grosz captured the last glory of Dallas as a centralized city before it gradually fell victim of endless suburban expansion.
The three large oil canvases, representing the essence of wealth in Dallas — Oil, Cattle, and Cotton, were beautifully executed. The cattle scene, in particular, has undergone a dramatic compositional overhaul to please the patron. Big Texas sky, strong linear perspective (he scaled down the cowboy to enlarge the size of the longhorn herd), tight cropping and thick impasto were pleasing enough to Dallas entrepreneur. Ironically, nothing within the center city, even at that time, retained much traces of the three industries that bolstered the local economy. In fact, the center city, supported by a booming banking sector then, was so lively and urban that it was probably a disappointment for Grosz who had been fascinated by the images of old American West.
The label beside the cotton picker painting shows that Grosz probably borrowed the composition from Millet’s famous painting Gleaner since he didn’t have the chance to see the cotton picking in January of North Texas; yet my visual memory leads to a different source – Ben Shahn’s Picking Cotton B&W photo taken in 1935. In both images, the artists chose the vantage point behind the cotton pickers. By eliminating the facial details and elongating the cotton bag dragged down from the bodies, the images speak of eerie contrast between lightness in cotton and strenuous labor in cotton picking. All three paintings were so theme-based and generic to the eyes of Dallasites that “Is that Fort Worth?” was one of the comments that I overheard from an elderly visitor on a wheelchair.
A fourth oil painting, a downtown skyline surrounded by prairies, is truly locale specific. An enlarged photograph showed that George Grosz did observe the Dallas skyline from afar. In the picture, Adolphus Hotel, Mercantile Bank Building, Magnolia Building and other downtown skyscrapers were clustered and floating on top of the green prairies in the foreground. It strikes me to see the jungles of masculine rectilinear architecture clashing against the rolling waves of greens of the nature. The light color palette radiates pride of societal progress – To some extent, Dallasite’s confidence in transformation and growth was seeded back then.
However, my favorite is a watercolor painting of the downtown nocturnal scene. Flower of the Prairie, from which the show named, encloses the city night scene in an organic form of dark blue. The opaque colors were tightly applied to urban architecture like sprawling stamen of a flower waiting to be pollinated. The surrounding translucent yellow color takes the image away from realism. It puzzled me as the meaning behind the picture seems vague. Was Grosz suggesting the city a mirage of a human feat against all natural inhospitality?
The rest of the watercolor series (mostly downtown scenes) were true gems that would stun our urban planners as to whether Dallas has progressed forward or fallen backward since 1952. Magnolia, Mercantile Bank and Republic National Bank Building (under construction at that time) were all featured. Each of them has subsequently taken the prize as the tallest building west of Mississippi when they were finished. The Arkard Canyon was used to refer to the gigantic shadow created by tall buildings flanking the street. To follow the tradition of escalating rivalry between Dallas and Forth Worth, the museum label cites one critic at that time praising the grandiosity of downtown Dallas — “There are windy corners in both New York and Chicago. BUT SUCH A THING WAS NEVER HEARD OF IN FORTH WORTH. Dallas is the only city in Texas that can boast of one.”
Dallas Broadway, a watercolor of the theater district is orchestrated with jazzy neon lights and signs of familiar household brand names (Dr. Pepper, Zales, and Palace Theater, etc.). The energy-instilled image, nevertheless, was executed with controls and plans, as evidenced by the use of stencils and scraping to create highlights. Today Majestic Theatre is the lonesome survivor of the district.
Eric was more interested in Grosz’s self-portraiture – a sincere image of self-examination with a clever composition of complete and unfinished canvases as background, sort of Trompe-l’œil in my eyes. Together with other pre-war illustrations, they give a full account of George Grosz’s artistic output.
In the end, I cannot help reciting the conclusion label from the exhibition. I don’t usually quote a whole paragraph from others, but I feel the urge of doing so after seeing the exhibition, particularly when several proposed major construction projects (Trinity Toll Road or the parking lot near Winfrey Points) have come to coin the future image of the city.
Leon Harris Jr. chose to have George Grosz record Dallas busting commercial center just as the city was being remade – and in some way unmade – by its own modernization. With astonishing speed, new construction rendered obsolete not only the heroic skyline captured by Grosz but also the commercial economy that imitated the Impress of Dallas commission. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Dallas invested heavily in automobile infrastructure, spurring the growth of new suburbs.
In 1947 construction of Dallas Central Expressway began, finally realizing a proposal made by city planner George Kessler in 1909. The city expanded from fifty square miles at the end of World War II to 198 square miles by 1953. The decentralizing effects were felt not only in the emerging residential suburbs but also in the shopping and entertainment districts of the city’s historic core, where Dallas’s rapid expansion led to the arranging of the very urban fabric that Harris had commissioned Grosz to represent.
Mayor Mike Rawlings and other Dallas city councilmen, you should come.
Flower of the Prairie: George Grosz in Dallas will be shown at the Dallas Museum of Art from May 20 to August 19, 2012.