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Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism
Max Liebermann, Cabbage Field (detail), 1923, oil on canvas, 19.8” x 27.3”. Leo Baeck Institute, New York. © 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
LOS ANGELES.-For the first time in the United States, the remarkable art and life of German painter Max Liebermann (1847–1935), the premier artist in Berlin from the mid-1880s until the Nazis seized power in 1933, will be the subject of a major museum exhibition, Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism, organized by the Skirball Cultural Center. This landmark retrospective—featuring more than 70 paintings and a dozen works on paper from public and private collections in Europe and the United States—will be on view at the Skirball from September 15, 2005 through January 29, 2006. The exhibition will then travel to The Jewish Museum in New York City, its only other venue, where it will be on view from March 10 through July 9, 2006. The exhibition spans the stylistic and thematic phases of Liebermann’s prolific career, from his renowned Realist interpretations of Dutch peasant life to his singular approach to Impressionism, and examines the relationship between the many phases of his art and the changing social and political climate in which he lived and worked. The great majority of the collected works will be new to American viewers. The exhibition catalogue (Skirball Cultural Center, $29.95 paperback), also entitled Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism, will be the first monograph on Liebermann in English.

Liebermann, the descendant of a well-established German Jewish family, was a celebrity in his own day. He was famous not only for his art but for his robust leadership in the cultural life of Berlin. He served as president of the Berlin Secession from 1898 until 1910 and was ultimately honored with the presidency of the Prussian Academy of Art from 1920 through 1932, during the Weimar Republic. Attaining such a position of civic authority was possible for a Jew only during this brief democratic period of German history. Upon Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power, however, in 1933, Liebermann was forced to resign from this distinguished post.

“The Max Liebermann exhibition at the Skirball gives voice to a remarkably talented and courageous artist whose dreams were betrayed by a totalitarian regime,” remarked Uri D. Herscher, Founding President and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center. “In 1920, Liebermann was the greatest German painter of his day and yet in 1935 he died as a non-citizen, with no notice taken of his death in the German press. We at the Skirball honor his memory with this exhibition of his work meant to remind all of us that only in a democratic and civil society can culture flourish with free expression.”

“Max Liebermann is highly regarded by experts in late 19th- and early 20th-century European art but is not a household name, particularly here in the United States,” said Lori Starr, Senior Vice President of the Skirball Cultural Center and Director of the Skirball Museum. “During the Nazi era, many of Liebermann’s paintings were removed from view in German museums and the memory of his contributions to modern German culture denigrated.

“This unprecedented exhibition rediscovers Liebermann, bringing to light his artistic achievements for American audiences and illuminating how he leveraged his artistic talent and position in the Berlin art world to promote social change and campaign tirelessly against censorship, intolerance and injustice at a time when Nazism presented grave dangers,” continued Starr. “From the engrossing Realism of his early works, whether incisive portraits or depictions of people in humble labor, so deftly painted, to the explosive color and immediacy of his Impressionist works, to the deeply personal late-career paintings of his family and garden at Wannsee—all will be a surprise and an inspiration to our visitors.”

Liebermann began studying art in the atelier of the Berlin painter Karl Steffeck in 1866. He later enrolled at the Weimar Art Academy and continued training in Paris where he was exposed to the latest in French painting. During the 1870s and 1880s, Liebermann worked in a Realist style influenced by Jean-François Millet, the Barbizon School and Dutch Jewish Realist Josef Israels, Liebermann’s contemporary, with whom he painted during long visits to Holland.

Barbara C. Gilbert, Skirball Senior Curator of Fine Arts and curator of the exhibition, as well as chief editor of the exhibition catalogue, explained, “Liebermann was always candid about the artists, both past and present, whom he considered mentors and who helped him develop his unique artistic identity. Appropriations from these artists were at times noticeable, yet as he matured he was able to transform his sources into new, highly personal visions. While studying in France, he was drawn to Millet’s glorification of everyday farm workers who were slaves to the soil, an experience that nourished Liebermann’s growing attention to the disinherited poor and to Realism in general.”

As a painter, Liebermann followed the Realist dictum, “Paint what you see as you see it.” But while remaining keenly attuned to contemporary Realist trends, Liebermann also studied the subjects and techniques of 17th-century Dutch painters such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn. His merging of the Realism of his day with the bravura painting style and compositional methods of the Old Masters is especially reflected in his depictions of the land and people of Holland. Liebermann suffered harsh criticism for these portrayals of rural working-class life since they were considered very much at odds with the tradition of grand history painting favored by the conservative art establishment of Berlin. A number of these works, including a drawing for his controversial painting Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple (1878), will be on view in the exhibition. Several early paintings will be featured, among them Self-Portrait with Kitchen Still Life (1873) and Recess in the Amsterdam Orphanage (1876), Liebermann’s first work to be painted completely out-of-doors and directly on the spot.

Liebermann gradually moved from his early Realism to a more modernist approach to painting. The 1890s in particular were transitional in his oeuvre: he experimented with new themes such as the leisure and recreational activities of middle-class urban society. This shift is reflected in Parrotman (1901)—one of a series of startlingly brilliant depictions of the warden at the Amsterdam Zoo gathering parrots at the end of the day—and paintings that document his annual family vacations at the beach in Holland, including The Artist’s Wife at the Beach, Tennis Players on the Beach, Horseback Riding and Walking on the Dunes, all of which will be included in the exhibition. Liebermann tended to paint these new subjects in series, with his execution growing increasingly spontaneous. He also began creating strong, affecting portraits of family members and distinguished citizens in the fields of commerce, science and politics. Evident in all of these works beginning in the 1890s are the influences of vanguard artists like Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Lovis Corinth and Edvard Munch. Gilbert explained, “When Liebermann made the transition from Realism to Impressionism and challenged himself to achieve a renewed interpretation of subjects from everyday life, Liebermann turned to Manet, an artist who, in his opinion, ‘had the ability of painting what was old in a new way.’”

The exhibition will also highlight works from the last 20 years of Liebermann’s career, a stage previously considered as secondary to his preceding, better-known Realist period. Following World War I, Liebermann turned to an in-depth study of the gardens at his lakeside villa in Wannsee, an idyllic suburb of Berlin. He planned these gardens so that the eye would register a series of outdoor spaces and a sense of contin

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