The Weimar Republic: One Artist’s Perspective

The set design of the Met’s new Rigoletto was deeply influenced by the art of the Weimar era—and set designer Michael Yeargan drew particular inspiration from the work of the German painter George Grosz. Born Georg Groß in Berlin in 1893, the artist volunteered for World War I in 1914. Yet unlike many of his fellow painters, he was never enthusiastic about the military engagement, and by 1916, he had developed such a strong anti-nationalist sentiment that he changed his name to make it less German, adopting the Anglicized “George” and the Hungarian-inspired spelling “Grosz.”

Throughout the 1920s, Grosz made a name for himself with extraordinarily detailed—and often caustically sardonic—caricatures of the people of the Weimar Republic. Some works, like The Eclipse of the Sun (1926), depict real-life military and political leaders with outlandish features and surrounded by the imagery of death. Others, like The Pillars of Society (1926) offered mordant portraits of the kinds of “upstanding citizens” who had led Germany into war or who were now supposedly helming the young Republic while allowing fascism to slowly take over the country; yet a third category of images, like the tragic skeletons in Pimps of Death (1919), are melancholy reminders of the citizens whose lives had been forever altered by the ravages of war. To the modern observer, these caricatures may seem bizarre or exaggerated, but for Grosz’s German contemporaries, their depictions of real-life people, events, and ideas were obvious. “George Grosz's cartoons seem to us not satires but realistic reportage,” the philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt later wrote. “We knew those types; they were all around us.”

As one of the foremost artists of the Weimar era, Grosz’s influence on Sher and Yeargan’s production could have been simply aesthetic. In an opera about an ill-used jester, however, Grosz’s unflinching, often sympathetic portrayals of those who have been forgotten or mistreated by society have additional resonance. Indeed, Rigoletto himself could well take his place in Grosz’s lineup of Weimar-era outsiders: A man driven by cruelty, callousness, and a lifetime of bullying to a tragic act of desperation and revenge.