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Soap Bubbles and Apocalypse
Max Beckmann’s Colored Paper Works at Frankfurt’s Schirn

For the first time, an exhibition is exclusively showing Max Beckmann’s watercolors and pastels – portraits and beach scenes as well as works depicting private or mythological motifs. Although Beckmann is one of the most important artists of the 20th century, many of these works have never before been shown publicly. The exhibition, which can be seen through the end of May at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, was supported by the Deutsche Bank Foundation. A report by Achim Drucks.

A mysterious scene appears before a jet-black background: a young woman is hanging upside-down from the ceiling, and her dress, which has slipped down, exposes her back and naked thighs. A man in a tuxedo is standing to her left, while a hand is reaching out from the right. The window, chair, and lamp are indicated with a minimum of strokes, signalizing that this obscure Meeting in the Night is taking place in an interior, probably in a whorehouse. What stands out in the vertical-format pastel work from 1928 is the contrast between the sketchy depiction of the man and the plastic presence of the object of his desire. Max Beckmann sketched out the man using only a few white chalk lines on a black watercolor background, while he carefully rendered the woman’s naked body, thus making her the center of the piece. Only a few details are accentuated in color.

Max Beckmann, Raub der Europa, 1933
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

This large-scale paper work, one of the highlights of the exhibition Max Beckmann – The Watercolors and Pastels, conjures the erotically charged situation with a great economy of artistic means. The comprehensive show at the Schirn marks the first opportunity to compare Beckmann’s colored paper works with one another. To this purpose, over a hundred pieces, many of which have never before been seen in public, are gathered together in the exhibition space in Frankfurt. The Deutsche Bank Foundation has supported the show because the bank is connected to the artist in a special way: Beckmann was one of the first to win the Villa Romana Prize, which has long been supported by Deutsche Bank, and 25 of his works are part of the bank’s collection.

Max Beckmann, Selbstbildnis mit Seifenblasen, ca. 1900, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006 Max Beckmann, Selbstportrait, from the series "Tag und Traum", 1946, Deutsche Bank Collection

Beckmann in private. In small cinematic cuts, the prologue to the exhibition presents the artist from his athletic side: swimming, on the tennis court, or skiing together with his second wife, Quappi. An ideal lead into the show, which is not purely dedicated to the serious side of the "mythic painter"; Beckmann’s paintings on paper, particularly the still lifes and landscapes, seem more spontaneous, soft, and relaxed than his famous canvases. The chronologically ordered show begins with an early self-portrait made in 1900: the 16 year-old is sitting on a bench blowing soap bubbles into the air, confidently jutting out his trademark chin. Beckmann’s initial artistic ventures oscillated between Impressionism and Symbolism; in expressive drawings and graphic pieces, he worked through his mental breakdown as a volunteer in the First World War. Throughout the twenties, he established himself in Frankfurt as an artist and professor at the Städel School. During this time, he increasingly began investigating watercolor and pastel – portraits, still lifes, and nudes took the place of the darker images of war. His Still Life with Lilies of the Valley from 1925 is a light, loose composition of spring colors, while his Reclining Woman is sensuous and the young Fänn Schniewind elegant and vulnerable in her portrait.

Max Beckmann, Liegende, 1932,
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

In 1933, the Nazis dismissed the painter from his professorship at the Städel School. That year, Beckmann made large-scale watercolors with existential themes that compare in quality with his best paintings. A melancholy Woodcutter is sitting between two tree stumps; his only companion is his dog. Murder portrays the arrival of chaos in the bourgeois world: a pair of naked feet are protruding from a bloody sheet in the chaos of a completely devastated room.

Max Beckmann, Odysseus und Sirene, 1933,
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

The relationship between the sexes is examined in works such as Brother and Sister and Ulysses and the Siren, which shows the man as a potential victim – helplessly dependent on the song of an eerie cross between woman and predatory bird, which he would follow immediately if he weren’t tied to the mast of his ship. The wrecks of stranded ships surrounding the sirens indicate what giving in to temptation actually means.

Max Beckmann, Strandszene mit Sonnenschirm, 1936,
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

The thirties were a restless time for Beckmann; initially because he traveled frequently with his wife, and later because he had to flee from the Nazis. Colored paper works increasingly arose during this time. Compared to oil painting, watercolor is the ideal medium for “the road”; Dürer already recorded his travel impressions in watercolor. Numerous landscape images arose in Upper Bavaria, while on the Dutch coast, the portrait of Quappi in a café or untroubled beach scenes reveal nothing of the artist’s tense situation prior to his emigration in 1937. The last works that can be seen in Frankfurt were made in exile in the United States. By this time, Beckmann’s cosmos had grown quite dark, as can be seen in disturbing scenes such as The Dogs Grow Larger, which depicts dogs threatening a screaming woman, or Early Men, a piece he worked on over several years. Monstrous beings are hatching from gigantic eggs in a prehistoric landscape, while huge fish are swimming across the sky. This composition’s scene goes beyond the pictorial inventions of his paintings in a surreal and mysterious manner. At the end of the show, Beckmann’s dark side once again takes hold of the viewer with his apocalyptic visions. Pandora’s Box lies open, and grey smoke is rising up: the catastrophe is in the process of unfolding.

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