Hans Friedrich Grohs: From Bereavement to Benediction
By Timothy George
Hans Friedrich Grohs (1892-1981) was an accomplished artist who belonged to the second generation of German Expressionist painters. His life’s work, which survives in several thousand pieces of art, is a remarkable testimony to creativity, courage, and faith in an apocalyptic world of violence, death, and moral collapse. He was born four years after Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended the German imperial throne; he died nearly a century later, in the same decade that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. He was drafted as a soldier in both world wars and experienced firsthand the Nazi reign of terror in between. Few artists have lived so fully, or recorded so faithfully, such a vast sweep of human history.
During World War I, Grohs was stationed near Bruges, Belgium, not far from enemy lines, where Corporal Adolf Hitler was running back and forth delivering messages for the army. During this time, Grohs studied the Flemish masters. Returning to Germany, he became a member of the influential art and design school organized by Walter Gropius and known as the Bauhaus. Although he later broke with this tradition in order to develop his own distinctive artistic voice, Grohs was shaped by the thought and work of contemporary Expressionist masters such as Emil Nolde and Edvard Munch.
The decade of the twenties was a difficult time of personal testing for Hans Grohs. Married to Elisabeth Treskow in 1922, Grohs was overcome with grief when she died two years later, just nine days after giving birth to their first child. Out of this time of great sadness and loss came several works of memento mori: a memorial sculpture of lament for Elli, as Grohs called his wife, and two remarkable woodcut series, The Elli Dance of Death and The ABC of Death. In these woodcuts, bereavement is portrayed as the pathway of benediction, interpreted in the light of Christian consolation. For example, the letter “K” (das Kreuz) shows a skeletal Christ bearing his cross to Calvary while carrying another cadaverous figure on his back.
Grohs worked in a variety of media, but the centerpiece of his surviving art is a series of sixteen stained-glass panels based on the Genesis account of creation. In the mid-1920s, Grohs was commissioned to do this work by the pastor of a small Lutheran church in the Schleswig-Holstein region. He worked for two years at his own expense to finish the project. However, when he delivered the completed series to the church in 1927, he discovered that the minister who originally commissioned the work had recently died. The church officials he met with at this time refused to accept the sixteen Genesis panels. The problem was not with the quality of the work, but rather with the literary source of the theme. Theirs was a church of the New Testament, they said, whereas these images were taken from the Old, the “Jewish” Bible.
It would be another six years before Hitler came to power, but already the changing social and political climate had undermined the biblical witness of the church in Germany. Over the next decade, the culture of the Weimar Republic was eclipsed by a ruthless totalitarian regime. In 1934, Hans Grohs became a professor at the Nordische Kunsthochschule in Bremen. For several years he flourished there as an artist and teacher. In 1937, however, his career was shattered and his artworks were declared “degenerate” by Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi censors. As a member of the German Confessing Church with known sympathies for Jewish people, Grohs came under grave suspicion. Some of his artwork was taken from his home and publicly burned, while other pieces were defaced or destroyed.
However, the Genesis windows were spared (along with other paintings, drawings, and prints). Grohs carefully wrapped these items in oiled paper and even raincoats and buried them beneath a barn near Bremen. Providentially preserved from oblivion, the stained glass panels were recovered undamaged at the end of the war. They have yet to be installed in a church, as originally intended, but nonetheless they remain as a witness to the overcoming power of the Creator whose work they celebrate.
In her essay, “Stained Glass of Hans Friedrich Grohs,” Susan Bockius has described each of the sixteen panels in the Genesis series. The first panel shows God brooding over his creation. This is followed by the calling forth of light as God the Father, like a farmer throwing grains of wheat from his basket, sows the stars and planets into the night sky. God’s creative work culminates in the making of Adam and Eve, who are then drawn toward sin and death by the subtle insinuations of the serpent. The God portrayed in these panels is transcendent and sovereign in his acts, creating the cosmos out of nothing, without the assistance of anyone else. But, as Bockius notes, the God of Hans Grohs is also personal and has character. “He is thoughtful, dramatic, pleased, anxious, tender. This is an approachable God in a fresh retelling of a timeless story.”
Pulsating through all Grohs’s works is his passionate faith in God, mediated through the classical Protestant tradition of Lutheran theology and piety. Some of Grohs’s greatest religious art reflects the suffering of his own life and that of his country during this time of devastation. “I am alone, my need is great!” he prayed. “My soul seeks you, Eternal God. Let your eyes be always upon mine, and when all men leave me, oh, leave me not, Eternal God!” In his own depression and distress, Martin Luther found great solace by looking to “the wounds of Jesus.” Just so, Grohs depicts the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as the great turning point in the cosmic drama of redemption.
Following World War II, Grohs returned to his art with newfound joy and hope. He saw his painting as a form of meditation, a prayer to God the Almighty. Though much of his art had been destroyed, and his own life deeply scarred by the brutality of what has been called “the worst century since Jesus Christ,” Grohs himself maintained his integrity, both as an artist and as a Christian. He never lost the sense of mystery and wonder in God’s creation, seen in the many landscapes he painted, nor the love and gratitude evoked by God’s gracious salvation in Jesus Christ. Both his life and his art are finely expressed in this Easter prayer, written in 1923: “Oh, give this light again to us! And guide our souls to your eternal home! Carry them in your hands, for without You our being ends.”
Thirty-five years after his death in 1981, Hans Friedrich Grohs continues to inspire those who know his art and study his life. The dedication festivities for Beeson Divinity School’s Hodges Chapel in 1995 featured an exhibition of his religious art made possible through the generosity of his devoted daughter, Frauken Grohs Collinson, and the Grohs Collection Trust.
Collinson is the sole inheritor and primary interpreter of her father’s artistic legacy. She aptly sums up the spirit of Hans Friedrich Grohs in this way:
He did not care about money or fame. He worked for the sake of the work, for the release of a tremendous force within him. My father was of a generation destined to be tested. Some of his work reflects hard times, but he never lost his belief that the spirit of Christ uplifted him or lost faith that the light of Christ burned in all men.
Published at First Things on 09.05.2016. “God Sowing the Stars,” from Genesis Window, by Hans Grohs, 1927—appears with permission of the Frauken Grohs Collinson-Grohs Collection Trust.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.