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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, the art and the odyssey of Max Beckmann. Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston reports.
ACTRESSES SINGING: Meet me in St. Louis, Louis meet me at the fair –
PAUL SOLMAN: In a sense, the American century began in 1904, at the fabled St. Louis World’s Fair, St. Louis assembling the wonders of the world for U.S. consumption. Newly cosmopolitan America was overtaking Europe, with St. Louis, for the moment, the hub of the modern, in science, technology, and art.
ACTRESSES SINGING: Meet me at the fair.
PAUL SOLMAN: Indeed, the art museum was the fair’s lone permanent structure. And to this day, it boasts a first-class collection of the world’s early moderns– from Monet and Van Gogh to Picasso, Matisse, and the one modern master who ended up in St. Louis itself, Max Beckmann, often hailed as Germany’s greatest 20th-century artist and one of the founders of what we now call modern art. The St. Louis art museum, which goes by the acronym “SLAM,” was the only U.S. venue of a major Max Beckmann show this year, exploring the birth of modern art by comparing the paintings of the German to those of French contemporaries like Henri Matisse. The audio tour was explicit.
SPOKESMAN: In this painting, Matisse Depicts a woman gazing into a fishbowl, lost in thought. Notice Matisse’s distinctive patterned background. In Beckmann’s 1939 painting “Woman with Large Shell and Wine Glass,” the vibrant colors are applied with quick, edgy brushstrokes. This painting is a beautiful example of the joyous aspects of Beckmann’s work that began during his Paris years.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, Max Beckmann is not known for his joyousness. Born in Germany in 1884– he died in America in 1950– he is famous for brooding, symbol-laden self-portraiture, for his mastery of the morose. Sometimes mythic and always dramatic, Beckmann may well be the epitome of Expressionism, Germany’s great contribution to modern art. It’s a style critics came to love; Hitler to hate; and St. Louis to accumulate. SLAM owns the world’s largest collection of Max Beckmann’s. But at the start, he was just a gifted, if romantic, realist. Wally Barker, a student of Beckmann’s in St. Louis after World War II, took us to a 1909 portrait of Beckmann’s first wife, Minna.
WALLY BARKER, Painter/Former Beckmann Student: He was a very fine academic person; he studied the traditions, especially Rembrandt. He was an excellent draftsman; his anatomy was perfect. He had a perfect understanding of human structure.
PAUL SOLMAN: Beckmann’s canvases grew with his ambition. “The Titanic,” painted in 1912, is as busy as turbulent, as theatrically tragic as the scene it depicts. But it was World War I that forged Beckmann’s famed Expressionism. A medic on the front, the artist faced such brutality that he simply broke down. His post war work is radical, dark, and, above all, personally expressive, as in 1917′s “Christ Saving an Adulteress From Stoning”– a Christ who looks a looks like Max Beckmann.
WALLY BARKER: So Beckmann identifies with this. I mean, he’s actually come out of a war very badly hurt, physically and mentally. You see this, this guy here with his blood all over his hands.
PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, yes, yes. That’s right. He’s got blood literally on his hands, the guy who’s — who’s so superior to the adulteress.
WALLY BARKER: So what he’s actually saying here is a plea for mercy, protecting someone.
PAUL SOLMAN: Beckmann the painter used various modern devices, seeing his subjects from multiple points of view, for instance.
WALLY BARKER: Well, you can look down on the feet of Christ.
PAUL SOLMAN: I see, we’re looking at that from above.
WALLY BARKER: That’s right.
PAUL SOLMAN: That’s right. We’re seeing the top of his foot here.
WALLY BARKER: That’s correct. You’re looking down, and about halfway through the picture you’re looking at –
PAUL SOLMAN: Right. Straight across at him, right.
WALLY BARKER: And at the top of the picture, you’re looking up.
PAUL SOLMAN: And this guy — it’s sort of like we’re seeing the underside of his face and the…
WALLY BARKER: Exactly.
PAUL SOLMAN: Different perspectives on one scene– it’s what French Cubism was known for: Picasso’s double faces, seen at once head-on and in profile; Braque’s still-lifes, seen both straight ahead– the legs that hold up the table– and from above– the newspaper and the tabletop itself. Playing with perspective intrigued Beckmann, but he was more interested in emotions, in energy.
WALLY BARKER: There’s a great sweeping line that will move through a Beckmann, and when he taught us, very often, he’d go up to our canvases and dip his paint in black paint and draw great big slashing lines. We then tried to build a theme around that.
PAUL SOLMAN: You mean on top of your — on top of the painting you’d already done?
WALLY BARKER: Yes, yes. His whole approach to painting was extremely physical. It was not from the wrist this way; it wasn’t from the arm this way. It was from the ball and socket joint, so his paintings had to do with large strokes, movements, and so forth that were very physical.
PAUL SOLMAN: With its big gestures, black outlines, and jagged edges, Beckmann’s Expressionism can lose some of its punch on the small format of TV. But in German galleries, in the 1920′s, this work packed a wallop. SLAM’s Connie Homburg:
CONNIE HOMBURG, Curator, St. Louis Art Museum: In the 1920′s, Beckmann was one of the great stars in Germany, one of the hottest painters of the time.
PAUL SOLMAN: So what does he need to come to Paris for?
CONNIE HOMBURG: Well, the interesting thing is that he wanted to be a cosmopolitan, a painter recognized on the European level such as Picasso, Matisse, and Braque were recognized internationally.
PAUL SOLMAN: In 1929, Beckmann moved to Paris, to exhibit there and get the French art world to take a German as seriously as it did its own.
SPOKESMAN: A serene, sensuous figure is set against an intricate, decorative pattern of stylized stripes, tiles, and latticework. This is Henri Matisse’s Exotic “Odalisque,” or “Harem Woman,” which was painted in 1926. Now look at the painting on the left. The model in Beckmann’s “Resting Woman with Carnations” also takes an alluring seated pose.
PAUL SOLMAN: Beckmann’s model is his second wife, Quappi. He painted Quappi flamboyantly, dozens of times, in various stages of dress and undress. Part of his new Paris persona: Macho artist with sexy wife. Beckmann didn’t just challenge Matisse, however, but Picasso as well. Here’s an example of Picasso’s classical style of the 1920′s. Here, according to Connie Homburg, Beckmann’s response: Again, Picasso, with a portrait called “The Reader” versus a Beckmann of a woman reading. The German took up specifically French themes as well: The French seaside is serene to Matisse; to Beckmann, it’s an occasion for a bizarre bathing scene. Rugby teams to France’s Robert Delaunay are all color. By contrast, Max Beckmann’s tangled web of soccer players by contrast bristles with dark feeling. Even Beckmann’s still-lifes are emotional. Consider a marine comparison: Picasso’s catch of the day, almost funny; Braque’s flat, formal, elegant. Beckmann’s creatures, however, convey menace.
CONNIE HOMBURG: And a sense of — almost of danger, of drama in the composition through these enormous teeth that the fish show, kind of give it a harshness and a forcefulness that goes away from a purely esthetic rendering of objects or shapes.
PAUL SOLMAN: Ultimately, Beckmann was rejected by France, and not long after, the king of German painting was spurned by his own country as well. A surviving photo shows how mildly this painting had begun in 1933: Beckmann, the proud sovereign; Quappi, his young queen. But in 1937, the Nazis had turned on him, confiscating hundreds of his paintings and taunting several in their infamous degenerate art show.
CONNIE HOMBURG: He reworked this painting in ’37 when he was declared degenerate and made it more brooding and less of a self-portrait than almost like a dark and dramatic painting that almost forebodes the terrible things that are going to come.
PAUL SOLMAN: Beckmann fled to Holland, safe in part because his son was a surgeon in the Luftwaffe. There, he painted the acrobats.
WALLY BARKER: He sees dark things, ugly things. The paintings take on a gloomy look. There’s a Roman soldier with a spear.
PAUL SOLMAN: Barbaric. Look at that.
WALLY BARKER: Well, that’s a thinly disguised Nazi. There’s a bellhop coming in. The bellhop in Beckmann’s paintings is always a messenger bringing news of various kinds, usually bad. And the acrobats refers to people who make their living by creativity, who are onstage.
PAUL SOLMAN: Disguising themselves, taking different roles, like Beckmann himself, who sometimes played the acrobat. It was after the war that, fed up with Europe, Beckmann was offered a teaching job in America, at Washington University in St. Louis. There, art student Wally barker became his assistant.
WALLY BARKER: To tell you the truth, he was so happy to be here.
PAUL SOLMAN: Pardon what may be East Coast chauvinism here, but here’s a guy who goes to Paris to take on Picasso, Matisse, and he winds up in St. Louis. (Barker laughs) Isn’t this something of a comedown for the guy? I mean -
WALLY BARKER: Well, I think the whole idea of security and at last a place where he can put his feet down– he’s got a steady job. And Beckmann had a snootful of Europe.
PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, St. Louis was in a sense Beckmann’s Paris, but here, he ruled the roost at last. In 1950, receiving an honorary degree from Washington University, he summed up: “Greatness,” he said in his speech, “depends alone on the fertile imagination of the individual. If you love nature with all your heart, new and unimaginable things in art will occur to you.” New and unimaginable things: It might as well be the motto of modern art. And if Max Beckmann hasn’t attained the stature of his French rivals, well, maybe it’s because they’re more important, or maybe because his nervy, odd imagery is just a bit harder to appreciate. And if you meet us in St. Louis, someday, perhaps you’ll see for yourself.