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Cleveland Museum of Art acquires dramatic painting by seminal 20th century German artist Max Beckmann
Woman’s Skirt, possibly late 1800s to early 1900s. Mbuun people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Raffia palm fibers; 29 x 40.5 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

CLEVELAND, OH.- The Cleveland Museum of Art continues to collect artworks of exceptional aesthetic and historical significance, strengthening a comprehensive collection that is widely considered to be one of the finest of its type in the country. Some of the most recent major purchases include an oil painting by Max Beckmann, a leading figure in the German Expressionist and New Objectivity movements, and rare garments from the Mbuun people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and from the Hausa or Nupe people of Nigeria or Niger. Notable gifts include the entire “Social Graces” series published by renowned photographer Larry Fink in 1984, and a Song dynasty marbled bowl created in response to glassware imported from areas like Persia, to the west of China.

“The acquisition of the Beckmann marks the successful conclusion of a decade-long hunt for a major work by the artist and adds a fascinating and challenging picture to the museum’s holdings of modern European art,” stated C. Griffith Mann, Ph.D, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. “The African textiles are notable not only for their quality but also for their provenance, and the gifts speak eloquently to the impact our collectors and donors are capable of making across our collections.”

Perseus’ Last Duty
Painting uses powerful forms and shocking, enigmatic subject matter characteristic of Beckmann’s finest paintings

Max Beckmann (1884-1950) is widely regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. By the mid-1920s, he had emerged as one of Germany's foremost artists, acclaimed for paintings filled with dark, cryptic symbolism and profound feelings of distress and foreboding. In 1933, Beckmann became one of the principal targets of the Nazi campaign against “degenerate” art and more than 600 of his works were confiscated from museums, with many destroyed. After World War II, he emigrated and spent his last years in the United States.

Perseus’ Last Duty was painted in New York in 1949. Beckmann refers the subject to the warrior-hero from Greek mythology whose most famous feat was entering the cave of the Gorgons and cutting off the head of Medusa. Rather than slaying a single figure, Perseus stands in a pool of blood, surrounded by mass carnage. The violent display is witnessed by a fierce animal with blood spattered on its face, perhaps a reference to Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gates to the underworld to prevent escape.

Although the painting’s subject refers to classical mythology, this grisly scene belongs to the modern world and suggests a personal dream or nightmare. Surviving two world wars, Beckmann also confronted the horrors of the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation that loomed with the rise of the Cold War. His bitter social critique emerges in this horrifying image of Perseus slaughtering victims while wearing a woman’s dress and nylon stockings, offering a dissonant parody of history’s tendency to valorize military victories and conquest. Although Beckmann’s precise intentions are unknown, the painting suggests a commentary on the human condition and the tendency for violence and cruelty.

Beckmann’s rarest and most desirable works are his large, allegorical paintings and the acquisition of this piece greatly strengthens the representation of German Expressionist art in the museum’s collection. The condition of this work is superb and the thick impasto strokes of its unvarnished surface impart a sense of frenetic energy to the scene. The painting is currently hanging on view with other German Expressionist works in the museum’s East Wing.

African Textiles: Woman’s Skirt and Man’s Robe

Women’s Skirt: Rare textile demonstrates classic Mbuun motifs

This woman’s skirt or hip-wrapper is assembled from multiple, separately woven panels of un-dyed palm tree raffia with embroidery patterns made with black fibers. Diamond and serpentine forms, explored in positive and negative, are common Mbuun motifs and have symbolic and cosmological meaning in that they are identified as representations of reptilian clan ancestors. Such embellishments are typical of much of the Mbuun people's art -making, which also includes wood carving, mainly prestige items such as cups and staffs. In times past, the same designs were also seen in women’s scarifications.

Though little is known about the cultural context in which textiles like skirts were worn, their rarity and quality suggest ceremonial occasions or funerary rites. This object’s excellent condition might confirm that this and other textiles of this type were treasured heirlooms seldom worn.

Unpublished to this day, the skirt surfaced in 2011 when it was sold by the heirs of Emile Lejeune, the Belgian colonial who brought it back along with a variety of other objects from the Congo between 1896 and 1906.

Man’s Robe: Exhibiting exceptional craftsmanship, garment represents a classic type of dress which is widely known throughout West Africa
The work is composed of finely woven narrow lengths of strip weave, embellished with embroidery in silk and cotton. Costly hand-woven elite garments with embroidery decorations, like this example, indicated the elevated status of their wearer and his affiliation with Islam. The embellishment with graphic motifs derived from Arabic script and offered the wearer protective power. The "eight knives" pattern and a stylized eight-pointed star are among the most important designs associated with both protection and chieftaincy.

The garment once belonged to the German painter Emil Maetzel (1877-1955), founder of the "Hamburg Sezession," who probably acquired it from the famous Hamburg-based art dealer Julius Konietzko between 1900 and 1909. A photograph dated 1909 shows the tunic worn by Maetzel in Hamburg. Maetzel and his wife built an important collection that included both African and Asian works of art, part of which was auctioned at Christie's Paris in 2011.

Notable Gifts
Marbled Bowl: Chinese marbling technique imitates patterns on imported glassware

This Song dynasty bowl from the 12th century exhibits the mixed clay marbling technique, called jiaotai, where light and dark-colored clays are combined to create a decorative effect. The technique, devised in the eighth century, imitates the marbled glassware imported from West Asia, particularly Persia. The Song marbled ware achieves both simplicity and vibrancy using the delicately marbled patterns and the entire object has been covered with a transparent glaze.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection of Chinese ceramics is one of the premier collections in the nation. A wide range of ceramic types and styles from about 2000 BC to 1900 AD is represented by works of superior quality. This piece was carefully selected and acquired by Mrs. Donna Reid, with the purpose of augmenting an already extraordinary collection.

Social Graces, 1974-2001: Renowned photographer Larry Fink’s most famous series documents disparities in American social classes

The 92 photographs, taken in the 1970s and 80s, record two different worlds: one of wealthy and extravagant Manhattan dwellers as they carouse at exclusive social events; the other of working-class families in rural Pennsylvania who celebrate special occasions in their homes or the local American Legion. Through the intimate, straight photographs Fink reveals what is gross, fascinating, humorous and human about both wealth and poverty.

The project began while Fink was working as a commercial photographer and teacher at a community school in New York. To gain access to Manhattan social events he acted as a society photographer, mingling among Manhattan’s elite. A few years later, he moved to Martins Creek, Pennsylvania where his neighbors’ lives seemed drastically at odds with the scene that he had just finished documenting in the city. Fink’s work advocated for social change, or at least for a deeper understanding of class structure. The style of his photographs speaks to the influence of his teacher Lisette Model, fellow student Diane Arbus and the socially engaged work of Robert Frank.

The entire Social Graces series was a gift of Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz in honor of Barbara Tannenbaum, the museum’s curator of photography.

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