Otto Griebel – The Ship’s Stoker (1920)

The Nazis ultimately deemed his art as degenerate, for its modern look, criticism of the militia and portrayal of nudity. There aren’t that many works left from German artist Otto Griebel, since many of them got destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1944. Others were confiscated by the Nazis or looted during World War II, with only a handful of them being subsequently found.

From the few artworks that remain, one theme seems to stand out: the German’s allegiance to communism. Freshly returned from World War I, after being seriously wounded, Griebel was quick to become an activist for the Communist Party in 1919. One year later, his painting The Ship’s Stoker (also translated as Ship Boilerman) showcased his political inclinations through the forceful portrayal of a sailor.

The artwork is imposing and eye-grabbing, with the body of the half-dressed sailor stretched to cover both the width and the height of the painting. The bold lines and the space that the man is occupying are making a clear statement about the sheer force that he exudes and the hard life that he lives. Stoking coal for the steam boiler, in order to keep the ship engines going, was a highly strenuous and labor intensive job.

Otto Griebel - The Ship's Stoker
Otto Griebel – The Ship’s Stoker (1920)

With his hat reminiscent of the communist caps, the sailor embodies the working man that the left claimed to represent. The fact that he is shirtless not only reveals his strength, but also tells a story through his tattoos. We can find out, for instance, from the black-and-red Star of David on his right shoulder and its outline on his left hand that he is Jewish. The man also has tattoos of a sailor, a naked woman, a hot air balloon, a serpent, a bottle of alcohol, a helm, an Indian chief … even the painter’s name is marked on his body.  All these are references to the places he’s been, his interests and his identity as a man of the sea.

Across the sailor’s chest, the image of two interlocked men, wrestling, grabs most of our attention. One of them is holding the American flag, while the other one is holding the Pan-Slavic flag, pointing to the clash in ideology between the Western bloc and the Slavs, the battle between communism and capitalism. The tattoo reveals the political leanings of the sailor, but it’s also ominous in predicting the Cold War that would ensue three decades later.

Slightly frowning with a contemplative pose while smoking a pipe, the stoker is looking away from yet another place that he leaves. The woman behind him, in the far distance, is a reminder that there’s a girl waiting for him in every port, a small comfort in the harsh reality of his days.



Tarsila do Amaral – Workers (1933)

Leopoldo Méndez – Little School Teacher, How Great is Your Will (1948)

14 thoughts on “Otto Griebel – The Ship’s Stoker (1920)

  1. I like his head and the way the cap accentuates it. It’s wildly distorted, but this allows emphasis on the eyes. There might be some symbolism with that pipe and its placement. Also the woman’s dress is barely covering her chest.

    As your other commenters pointed out, if the rest of his work was nearly this good, its destruction was a real loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Uhm, yes, that woman might be a prostitute. Veeeeeeeery likely. Oh man, so many of my posts are about prostitution these days.

      Funny you mention the pipe, someone else was saying that it might have been an afterthought. They too thought it didn’t quite belong there. Maybe the pipe emphasizes the woman behind him, acting as a diagonal line.

      You might like Christian Schad’s paintings too. They’re not as expressive, but they’re eccentric.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Isn’t this like a labyrinth , an inception like tale within a tale. All those tattoos telling stories, the background telling a story, the misproportion telling a story.
    And all these stories barely escaping fire, fury , loot and plunder of war.
    Thought provoking. 👍

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Bonjour !
        I Think the flag on the right is the civil flag of the Schleswog-Holstein Land, and this would refer to the fight for their independance from Denmark.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Salut, Mélanie! I appreciate your observation. It’s true, it looks like the Schleswig-Holstein Land flag too, but I think that given the context it’s more likely the Pan-Slavic flag. Griebel was not only an active communist, but he also depicted this particular flag in opposition to the American one, which, I think, suggests the politico-cultural conflict between East and West.


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