Frankfurt's Städel Museum has been expanded, filling its new space with a fantastic exhibition on German painter Max Beckmann. It focuses on the artist's work during the last years of his life in America.
"San Francisco" (1950) by Max Beckmann
Artists' later works are often derided as uninspired or out of pace with the times. But the exhibition "Beckmann & America" at Frankfurt's Städel Museum through January 8, 2012 proves the contrary can be true. The Leipzig-born painter experienced a burst of creativity during his period in the USA from 1947 to 1950, the last three years of his life.
Frankfurt's renowned Städel Museum was recently expanded, and its new rooms are devoted to Beckmann at the height of his abilities late in life.
The New World
The painter in New York's Central Park
Beckmann had long sought a way to emigrate to the USA while living in exile from the Nazis in Amsterdam. He succeeded in leaving Europe during the summer of 1947, receiving an opportunity to teach in St. Louis. Beckmann used the time well, travelling voraciously throughout the country - and painting.
The Städel is showcasing 41 paintings along with drawings and sculptures from this period in Beckmann's life.
"All in all, New York is of course the absolute extreme of grotesque dimensions that humanity has so far achieved … it's not a bad fit for me," Beckmann wrote in his journal.
There's a sense in which those "grotesque dimensions" had long been reflected in Beckmann's own work, full of gaudy, bright colors and upright formats with wild, overflowing brush strokes. Individual forms and figures were often captured by way of sharp black borders.
Once across the Atlantic, Beckmann continued to paint in the style he had in Europe with mythological, religious and historical themes filling his canvases - often in symbolic or mysterious ways. But American landscapes and figures began to make their way into the frame. They are now captured in the many triptychs, one of the painter's favorite forms, that hang in the Städel.
Precursors to the impressive triptych "The Beginning" came about in Amsterdam, and the work itself was completed in early 1949. The viewer can see the entire cosmos of Beckmann's life, from childhood and youth through to his impressions in America.
The artist was reading the family drama "Look Homeward, Angel" by Thomas Wolfe at the time, and the act of retrospection informed many of Beckmann's works. "The Beginning" usually hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and is one of the high points in the Städel's show.
"Beginning" by Max Beckmann is an autobiography on canvas
The artist continued his series of self-portraits in the USA as well. Beckmann depicted himself shortly after his arrival with a confident glance, a cigarette and a green scarf wrapped elegantly around his neck. His gallery representative Curt Valentin sold the painting shortly after a major retrospective in St. Louis to a New York collector. Beckmann was already a well-known artist in America while he still lived in Europe and was considered the premiere German expressionist.
He continued his work even as new currents in the American art world began taking hold with figures like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock ushering in abstraction. At the time, Beckmann was exhibited in major American museums, including under the title "American Painters Today."
But the new directions of American art wouldn't have altered his course, said the curator of Frankfurt's show, Jutta Schütt.
"It wouldn't have shaken him up. He was so fixed in his method and in figuration - so stringent, that's where his goals were," she said, adding that abstraction "could have influenced him much earlier. But that was never at stake, it was never his issue."
A legacy to admire
Rather, it was the major French art world stars like Matisse, Picasso and others that jarred Beckmann, who wanted to disrupt their hegemonic influence. And he succeeded to an extent, including in his final work done in America.
After he was driven from his homeland by the Nazis, his works seized and included in the notorious exhibitions of "entartete Kunst" ("degenerate art"), and anguished years of exile in Amsterdam, Beckmann's years in America renewed the painter's creative spirit. He delivered an impressive artistic legacy during his final years.
Author: Jochen Kürten / gsw
Editor: Stuart Tiffen