Friday, July 30, 2010
jewish artists in the great European paintings exhibition NGV
THE TRAGIC STORY OF GERMAN AND JEWISH ARTISTS WHO LED THE MODERNIST MOVEMENT
The greatest irony of the magnificent exhibition of European Masters from the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt is summoned up in the story of Max Beckmann. Born in Leipzig in 1884, he studied at the Weimar Kunstschule from 1900 to 1903. Eventually promoted to professor at the Stadelschule in 1925. once the Nazis came into power in 1933, he, along with many various great Jewish artists, was denounced as degenerate and fled into exile. Now his art holds a special place in the museum, 100 of whose works have been loaned to the NGV in Melbourne where they will be on show until October whilst the building in Frankfurt is being renovated.. They will not be seen anywhere else. It is a great tribute to the gallery that such priceless works can be safely shown to an eager public.
Like so many of his compatriots, Beckmann was proudly German; his greatest desire was to regenerate German art after the First World War which had affected him very deeply. Having volunteered as a medical officer, his world view was profoundly changed by the experience. The early self portrait of 1905 shows a budding artist looking out at us with questioning, gentle eyes. Behind him is a window as though the world were his oyster, but that was not to be. Compare it with the painting of the Frankfurt synagogue (1919) where everything leans at a dangerous angle, the buildings, lampposts, streets all crowding together in a claustrophobic space reminiscent of some of Van Gogh’s most disturbed works. A little band of odd characters wanders in front of the synagogue looking as if they had strayed from a circus. Like much of his later work, done in exile in Amsterdam, it is full of fear and foreboding as if he could sense what was about to happen. Beckmann was angry and disoriented by having to leave his beloved home to which he never returned. “The Circus Carriage” (1940) shows a stern Beckmann as circus master pretending to read a newspaper whilst an acrobat is trying to climb a ladder to get out of the room. But he is trapped in the picture as are we. The central figure is a reclining woman gazing blankly ahead – a fortune-teller perhaps, holding a hand of cards. A coarse animal- trainer holding a whip guards his fierce tigers in their cage. Though Beckmann, like his fellow Kirchner portrays a world on the brink of madness, the intensity of the colour and expression prevent the viewer from falling into despair. He points ahead to surrealism and the absurdist movements. But the utter humiliation of the Degenerate Art exhibition which toured Germany for four years was to damage his psyche. After he and his wife fled, they lived in Amsterdam for ten years and in 1947 emigrated to the US where he died three years later at the age of 66. The Australian born critic Robert Hughes says that this, along with Beckmann’s other triptychs “represent one of the greatest efforts of the symbolic imagination in all 20th century art, a sort of ....world theatre in which the follies and tragedies of Europe, along with its pining for a utopian order on the very brink of collapse, were given an unrelentingly vivid allegorical form.” Hughes believes that the power of Beckmann’s work comes from the heat it generates and has called him “the greatest German painter of the 20th century.”
As a failed artist, nothing was more important than art to Hitler. He based his thinking on a book by the Jewish writer Max Nordau (Degeneration,1892) which surprisingly supported the idea of superiority of traditional German culture, sowing just how assimilated many of Germany’s best intellectuals were. Twice rejected from the Vienna Academy, Hitler’s taste was limited to 19th century neo-classical landscapes and idealised figures. With Goebbels as Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, the systematic suppression of creativity in all the arts held sway.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a contemporary of Beckmann’s and a founding member of a group called “Die Brucke (The Bridge) which aimed to draw a link between the art of the past and that of the brutal new era that was dawning.. Born in Dresden in 1880, he too volunteered for military service during World War I in 1914 but suffered a nervous breakdown in 1915 and was discharged, recovering for the next two years in sanatoriums in Switzerland.
In 1918, he settled in Davos, living in a farm house in the Alps; from this time onwards his main subject matter was mountain scenes. On 3 July 1919, he wrote in a letter from Davos, "Dear Van der Velde writes today that I ought to return to modern life. For me this is out of the question. Nor do I regret it.... The delights the world affords are the same everywhere, differing only in their outer forms. Here one learns how to see further and go deeper than in 'modern' life, which is generally so very much more superficial despite its wealth of outer forms."
The two of his works on show from the Stadel are so exquisite in their use of colour composition and surface tranquillity that they hide the angst that afflicted him throughout his life. “The Reclining Woman in a White Chemise” is a voluptuous picture redolent with sensuality, the well- proportioned lady showing off her ample curves; the huge flowers contrast brilliantly with the furniture, and the echoing curves of the sofa and wall behind give off an air of luxuriance that suggest that the subject was intimately known and loved by the artist.”The Sleigh Ride in the Snow” of 1927-9 is filled with movement – in the foreground the horse pulling the sleigh through the snow, in the background hills and rows of sloping hills and trees in a variety of sharp and light colours.
In 1933, Kirchner was labelled a "degenerate artist” by the Nazis and asked for his resignation from the Berlin Academy of Arts. In 1937, over 600 of his works were confiscated from public museums in Germany and were sold or destroyed. In 1938, the psychological trauma of these events, along with the Nazi occupation of Austria, close to his home, led to his suicide.
The list goes on: Max Ernst is represented by two works which illustrate how much he was influenced by Freud, as were the surrealists who came later. “Aquis Submersus” of 1919 exhibits an eerie still world centred around a swimming pool with lifeless figures dominated by a doll-like figure in the foreground without limbs and riddled with bullet holes. In the sky a clock replaces the moon. We are already into the world of the subconscious and dreams. He did in fact collaborate with many other artists including Dali and Paul Klee. He led the most extraordinary life, marrying many times and working with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes..Like a cat he seemed to have nine lives, escaping near death and two spells in concentration camps before moving to the USA which was the fortunate recipient of many of those European artists and intellectuals who were not destroyed by the Nazi onslaught.
The exhibition traces the history of 19th and 20th century Europe and contains far more than I can begin to describe. But out of the ashes of terrible persecution, Jewish artists managed to triumph and leave an outstanding legacy.
Betty Caplan is a freelance writer and teacher based in Melbourne.