The Big Review: Max Beckmann at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich ★★★★★

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Max Beckmann has long been regarded as the supreme figurative painter of Germany’s 20th century. But he is otherwise a tough nut to crack. His cold-eyed gaze, hermetic imagery and astounding productivity can make a sizeable presentation of the work an adventure in confusion: you can often feel you know less afterwards than when you first went in. What a clarifying pleasure, then, to wander into Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne, where, by narrowing down Beckmann’s oeuvre to some 85 works related to travel, and then complementing them with a trove of personal effects and travel-related ephemera, the curators have pulled off a miracle of compression. Max Beckmann: Departure does nothing short of finding something like the whole of the artist by viewing his career as a piecemeal series of journeys.

The show takes as its emblem Beckmann’s maniacal and majestic 1930s triptych Departure, on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But the spark for the exhibition is the 2015 bequest of the artist’s personal estate to the museum’s umbrella organisation, the Bayerische Staatsgemälde­samm­lungen, which has allowed the curators to fill the show with everything from family photo albums and postcard caches to Weimar-era passports and post-war customs forms. As soon you enter, you encounter Departure itself—with its sadistic side-panel scenes hung in separate planes from the enigmatic sea journey in the centre—and a Belle Époque Louis Vuitton travel case, which passed into Beckmann’s possession through his second wife and primary muse, Mathilde.

Max and Quappi Beckmann on holiday in Zandvoort around 1934-35 Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen; Beckmann archive and bequest

The triptych—the first of nine completed by Beckmann, and one of three in the show—is connected to the artist’s own 1933 departure from Frankfurt, where the rise of the Nazis led to his dismissal as a prestigious professor at the city’s Städelschule art academy. He and Mathilde—better known as Quappi—thought they could find refuge in the bigger city of Berlin, only to flee Germany in 1937, when Beckmann’s work became a star attraction in the Nazi regime’s now notorious degenerate art exhibition, then starting to tour the country. But the show demonstrates how dislocation of one kind or another came as naturally as breathing to Beckmann, who was instilled with a taste for the circus by his father and who had adolescent dreams of adventures on the Amazon River. Two early works, placed not far from the Departure triptych, fill out the entrance. In the Automobile and the frenetic Street at Night, both dating to the eve of the First World War, anticipate the restlessness that would mark Beckmann’s trip-filled life and motion-filled work.

Dark war years

Beckmann had achieved great success in the 1920s, and he and his wife spent the decade commuting between fashionable European watering holes. After leaving Germany for what turned out to be wartime exile in Amsterdam, they finally left Europe in 1947 for America. Beckmann’s fruitful but claustrophobic Amsterdam period was eventually made bearable by imaginary journeys, which, during the darkest war years, were fuelled by looking at postcards that recalled earlier sojourns on the Mediterranean coast. Those postcards, travel brochures and other scraps and souvenirs are displayed in inviting, cabin-like structures that the curators use as way stations between the paintings themselves.

Loosely thematic but cunningly chronological, the show groups the paintings, without regard to decade, under motif-inspired headings such as The Sea and City Bar Hotel, culminating in a vast gallery called Cosmos Studio, where the artist’s exotic artefacts and atelier objects, placed in a V-shaped vitrine, are accompanied by a range of self-portraits. Beckmann’s studio, argue the curators, was a space for inner journeys and flights of fancy.

Beckmann’s The Harbour of Genoa (1927) © The Saint Louis Art Museum; bequest of Morton D. May

A holiday is, by some measure, a kind of temporary exile; an attentive refugee could be mistaken for a tourist. The equivocal nature of travel is suggested as a way to decode Beckmann’s often cryptic canvases. In 1927, when the Beckmanns were leading a glamorous pan-European life, he painted The Harbour of Genoa. Possibly inspired by the view from the city’s palatial grand hotel Miramare, where the couple stayed on yet another of their countless holidays. The night scene, of what was a leading point of entry to Fascist Italy, is alluring and infernal, rousing and disturbing, like a moon-lit underworld. It is hung near Schiphol, a 1945 painting named after Amsterdam’s airport, completed when the Beckmanns were prevented from leaving Holland even as the Second World War was ending; bombed during the war, the airport is depicted as a collection of oversized airplane parts, with the title keeping alive the dream of escape.

The world reopened for the Beckmanns when they arrived in the US, and some of the artist’s final trips were made by car, in the Rockies and through the Ozark Mountains, near St Louis, where Beckmann replaced Philip Guston on the faculty at Washington University. In Boulder—Rocky Landscape (1949), Colorado’s weird rock formations are rendered as fantastical monoliths, suggesting a blurring of fantasy and reality—a real-life imaginary journey.

Beckmann’s The Argonauts (1949-50) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

America’s geological wonders and their intimations of immeasurable time helped inspire the mythological imagery of Beckmann’s last masterpiece, The Argonauts (1949-50), a triptych on loan from Washington, DC’s National Gallery of Art, which he completed, aged 66, a day before dropping dead while walking in Manhattan’s Central Park. In Munich, it is placed across from the earliest work on display, the 1905 Young Men by the Sea, a vast, vaguely mythological, Cézanne-like scene of fin-de-siècle freedom that lends its figures to that final triptych, which invokes the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece as a way, perhaps, to argue for the redemptive act of making art, and art’s promise of outlasting death.

Beckmann famously reviled categorisation, disavowing any connection with the -isms of his era (notably Expressionism, often used to describe him). In placing a lifetime’s worth of art and effects under the grand, if flexible, category of travel, the curators allow us to see his career as a kind of cumulative roadshow; indeed, in his joyous snapshots and home movies, he is revealed to be a natural actor—a ham, even. And this allows us to look again at his celebrated self-portraits, not as dire confessions, but as shifting disguises.

This much I do know after seeing the exhibition: the grown-up artist did indeed become the performer-explorer of his youth, which gives this revelatory show what could be called a happy ending.

Beckmann’s Louis Vuitton trunk Photo: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

What the other critics said

In Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, Bernhard Schulz sets Max Beckmann: Departure above other recent shows about the artist. He writes: “Of course, many of the pictures shown in Munich have already been seen elsewhere, in other contexts… And yet everything is different in Munich. With the main theme of departure, which includes the carefree holiday trip as well as farewell and loss, even transition and transcendence, a red thread is laid through this life’s work…”

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Brita Sachs praises the use of archival material to shed new light on the artist: “Quappi’s holiday movies show her Max smiling and athletic, when, after a tennis match, he also hits his bike or trudges up the slope on skis. The swimmer and cyclist are also real surprises, given that this painter is known as a city dweller, as a flâneur in a tuxedo.”

Max Beckmann: Departure, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, until 12 March

• Curators: Oliver Kase and Christiane Zeiller, with Sarah Louisa Henn

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