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"Beckmann & America" at the Stadel Museum highlights Max Beckmann's late works
Exhibition view. Photo: Norbert Miguletz.
FRANKFURT.- Max Beckmann’s (1884–1950) late oeuvre from the United States will be highlighted for the first time in a monographic special exhibition shown at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt under the title “Beckmann & America” from October 7, 2011 until January 8, 2012. With a total of 110 exhibits, including forty-one paintings as well as numerous drawings, watercolors, printed graphic works, and sculptures, the show offers a comprehensive survey of this important artist’s fascinating last period of life and creative production. After living and teaching in St. Louis from 1947 on, Beckmann finally moved to New York where he died in 1950. Decisive from an evolutionary point-of-view, these years in America granted the artist the right environment for a new beginning and further development.

Securing Departure from the MoMA, The Beginning from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as The Argonauts from the National Gallery of Art in Washington as loans, the Städel will be able to present three of Max Beckmann’s nine finished triptychs in its exhibition. These works are regarded as the highlights of the artist’s work. For Frankfurt am Main, where Max Beckmann lived from 1915 to 1933 and worked and taught at the Städel School, the exhibition project is of special importance: the Städel Museum boasts a rich collection of paintings, drawings, printed graphic works, and sculptures by the artist and has presented a series of exhibitions on specific aspects and periods of his oeuvre.

The exhibition is substantially supported by the Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain and realized on its initiative as part of the project “The Phenomenon of Expressionism.” BNY Mellon, a global financial services company, is supporting the exhibition as Corporate Sponsor to help make these rarely-seen examples of Beckmann‘s work accessible to a broader public.

Max Beckmann ranks among the most important artists of the twentieth century. Born in Leipzig in 1884, the painter, drawing on contemporary history, mythology, and his own biography, created an oeuvre constituting one of the most outstanding productive iconographic achievements in modern art. His life and his work are closely linked with the history of Germany. In World War I he served as a voluntary medical orderly in Flanders until his emotional and physical breakdown. Impressions of the war fundamentally changed his painting. Beckmann came to focus on the brutality of everyday human relations, and the subjects of his pictures turned expressive and angular. The artist lived in Frankfurt from 1915 on where he became a professor at the Städel School ten years later. He enjoyed increasingly bigger successes in these years, which culminated in retrospectives in Mannheim, Zurich, Basel, and Paris. Beckmann, whose seemingly metaphorically encoded paintings simply fulfill the cliché of German painting, already became known in the USA through numerous solo and group exhibitions from the mid-1920s on, when his career in Germany had reached its climax. With the seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933, his career was precipitously interrupted. He was deprived of his professorship at the Städel School in Frankfurt and emigrated to Amsterdam in 1937.

It was only after ten years in exile, which were determined by isolation, fear, and want because of the war, that he succeeded to leave Europe for America – which was what he had ardently longed for; his New York art dealer Curt Valentin had found a teaching assignment for him. When Beckmann finally arrived in America in the late summer of 1947, he was already regarded as one of the “most powerful German Expressionists,” as he was characterized in the catalogue of the exhibition “Art in Our Time,” with which the MoMA had celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 1939. Life in the New World offered the artist undreamt-of opportunities for development. This was mainly due to encounters with certain people and progressive institutions. So it was far from Europe where Beckmann was to spend his last and extremely productive period of his life. The Beckmann catalogue raisonné lists eight-five paintings dating from these three years alone. The themes chosen comprise a remarkably small number of landscapes, comparably numerous still lifes, but also portraits as well as religious and mythological subjects.

From the viewpoint of Frankfurt, but especially with the objective of establishing a historical perspective, both the exhibition and the catalogue start with the first Beckmann acquisition for the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, The Descent from the Cross from 1917. The oil painting, which the former director of the Städel Georg Swarzenski purchased directly from the artist’s studio in 1919, was confiscated by the National Socialists in 1937 and presented in the exhibition “Degenerate Art.” Today, the outstanding work is part of the collections of the MoMA in New York, from where it will return to the city on the Main for the exhibition.

This painting will be followed by works such as the first landmark triptych Departure (MoMA) or Begin the Beguine (University of Michigan Museum of Art), which – though still painted on European soil – already anticipate Beckmann’s feeling of freedom and his desire to leave his Amsterdam exile behind. When he arrived in America, Beckmann was welcomed with open arms. St. Louis, Missouri became his first place of residence in America; he stayed for two years and held a guest professorship at the city’s Washington University. With personalities such as Perry T. Rathbone, director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, his wife Euretta, and life on the campus of Washington University, it was rather an informal atmosphere that surrounded Beckmann. The encounters with people who not only helped the German artist in America, but also made friends with him, will be reflected in the presentation of a selection of very different portraits. The persons portrayed include Georg Swarzenski as well as the painter’s art dealer and friend Curt Valentin and his student and friend Walter Barker.

When Beckmann moved to New York, where he started teaching at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, in the fall of 1949, he found himself immersed in a pulsating cosmopolitan milieu. He lived in the center of art which not only offered him historical treasures like those to be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and places such as The Cloisters, but also the opportunity to follow the day’s developments in art. Frequent shorter and longer journeys took him to the Midwest, to Chicago, to New Orleans, to Boulder, Colorado, or to California and the West Coast. The expanses of the foreign continent, which were an entirely new experience for the artist, its coasts, and the atmosphere of its “wild” landscapes, as well as the cosmos of its metropolises, became a perceptible source of inspiration for his art. His discovery of the American landscape becomes manifest in such works as San Francisco (Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt), Morning on the Mississippi (private collection), or Mill in the Eucalyptus Grove (private collection).

The exhibition in Frankfurt will present Beckmann’s late work primarily as the result of his decisive artistic attitude and unremitting work in the awareness of his own development. Beckmann remained a European painter even in America. Remarkably, he did not cease to dedicate himself to figurative solutions and his metaphoric subjects, standing his ground as a European artist of international status in his new environs despite the steadily increasing importance of US-American Abstract Expressionism and its artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, or Mark Rothko. Beckmann devoted himself to exploring figuration and space, line and color, reality and metaphysics in a by and large unbroken approach. Considering Beckmann’s triptychs, his Beginning (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) – a narratively structured recollection of his own childhood days – presents itself as the subjective counterpart to the ideationally conceived The Argonauts (National Gallery of Art, Washington). In the final analysis, Beckmann’s “American” work, which never strikes us as repetitious, reveals itself as a consistent extension of previous achievements.

Though Max Beckmann, the draftsman, also used the medium for preparatory sketches, his drawings are to be seen as independent works when considering their complexity and formal achievement. It is only to be attributed to exterior circumstances that the artist produced a conspicuously large number of drawings during his longer stay in Boulder, Colorado, for example, where he had no studio. The medium of drawing, which is relatively open compared with that of painting, offered Beckmann the opportunity to receive new impressions, but also allowed him to pursue his memories and his fantasies and to develop his imagination. Many of these drawings will be on display in the exhibition.

In the midst of his “new” life, Max Beckmann suffered a heart attack and died on a street corner near New York City’s Central Park in December 1950. His last painted pictures – Falling Man and the Argonauts (both of which are to be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington) or Backstage (Städel Museum) – strike us as wise existential statements, as a farewell from his theater of the world.

With three thematically independent exhibitions – “Beckmann & America” in the Städel Museum (October 7, 2011 – January 8, 2012), “Max Beckmann. Face to Face” in the Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig (September 17, 2011 – January 22, 2012), and “Max Beckmann. The Landscapes” in the Kunstmuseum Basel (September 4, 2011 – January 22, 2012) – this autumn art season offers the unique opportunity to explore Max Beckmann’s manifold oeuvre in a profound manner.

Stadel Museum | Max Beckmann | MoMA |




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