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.
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.