Wo Max Beckmann’s pictures were taken is often revealed by the signature. After 1918, when not only was the world in ruins, but the war had also traumatized the painter, who was born in Leipzig in 1884, he usually added a city code to his name and the year. Perhaps this formal addition helped him to orientate himself better in a life full of changes and turning points. After working in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam, he made the leap to America in 1947.
His with “St. L.” shows that he did not immediately end up in New York, where he died in 1950, but first went to the less prominent St. Louis. At Washington University in the inconspicuous city in the state of Missouri, known above all as the settlement of German beer brewing families, he stood in for Philip Guston for two years as “Instructor for Drawing and Painting”. For Beckmann, who was banned from the Städelschule in Frankfurt by the National Socialists in 1933, this marked the end of a long break in his teaching career.
As a result of his stay in the Midwest, the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) has the most extensive collection of his works next to the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. It was then that he met local department store heir and art lover Morton D. May, who was thunderstruck at Beckmann’s paintings.
In any case, after this Damascus experience, May extended his preferences for German Expressionism and pre-Columbian artefacts, which had diverged from the contemporary taste for French, to the work of the guest and was also driven by the ambition to assemble the largest bundle of Beckmann works. With success: In 1983, thirty-five paintings came to the museum from May’s estate.
As a start, Beckmann’s students had to paint a still life
The company’s profile, transformed in this way, was further sharpened in 2002 with the acquisition of 350 Beckmann graphics. Consequently, the artist is the focus of the current exhibition “Day and Dream in Modern Germany”, carefully curated by Melissa Venator. It brings together 64 works on paper from the collection that were created between 1914 and 1945 and asks how their creators deal with the experience of war. Very different, is one of the answers.
Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz, for example, depict poverty and corruption, while Otto Müller shows nudes in untouched nature and thus creates a counter-image to the horrors of his time. The symbols and allusions in Beckmann’s last portfolio, “Day and Dream”, created shortly before he jumped across the Atlantic in 1946 and which lends the show its title, are more difficult to interpret. Fifteen lithographs follow an order but do not create a narrative. However, the sheets combine the motifs that are essential to him. One recognizes his wife Quappi and himself, finds circus motifs, references to the weather, his life in Amsterdam and allegories of war.
After moving to the New World, Beckmann’s subjects seem more relaxed and clearly influenced by his immediate surroundings than they used to be. He feels inspired by the mountains in Boulder, Colorado, among other things, for landscape depictions, while numerous portraits immortalize his patrons and hosts, who had welcomed the well-known artist in St. Louis with open arms. Meanwhile, he always made it his students’ first assignment to create a still life. Apparently he saw it as a particular challenge to leave the traditional framework of this genre and thus fulfill his claim of showing reality without depicting it mimetically.
He also first created a still life himself in St. Louis: in the center of the more than one meter high vanitas motif “Still Life with Two Large Candles” from 1947, painted in somber colors, there is a burning candle and a candle that has just been extinguished, above the smoke spreads like a flower. On the left you can see the bust of a female figure in profile. The background suggests a window and a round mirror. With this composition, which is far removed from the subject, Beckmann narrowed the gap between his figurative painting style and the abstract expressionism that was currently popular in his host country. In addition to two other still lifes from his time in America, the picture hangs in the gallery “The Modern Still Life” among the works of other European artists.
On the other hand, the “Fisherwomen” of 1948 are among the enigmatic motifs that researchers are still struggling to interpret – a group of female figures crowded into a small space who look like a mixture of Amazon and show girl and fish in hold their hands. The monumental canvas is located in a central hall, in which Beckmann’s entire development is leafed through in its entirety. In addition to the exceptionally large paintings, including a triptych, there is also a sculpture on display: the artist’s iconic, massive skull in bronze, familiar from countless self-portraits.
The chronological series leads consistently to his last self-portrait, which he created in 1950, the year of his death. The earliest of the permanent exhibits is a portrait of Beckmann’s first wife that looks like an old master, which he painted in 1910 when he was twenty-six years old. The abbreviation in the signature does not yet reveal anything about the place of origin, but it does reveal another fixed point in the artist’s life. He drew with “HBSL”: “Mr. Beckmann of his loved ones”.
Day and Dream in Modern Germany 1914-1945. At the St Louis Art Museum; until February 26, 2023. No catalogue.