French Connection

German artist Max Beckmann's fervent wish to have his works exhibited alongside those of his Paris School rivals is finally fulfilled in a show at the St. Louis Art Museum

The premise of Beckmann and Paris is simple: Place the works of Max Beckmann, the celebrated German painter, in the context of the Parisian paintings by artists such as Picasso and Matisse, whom he considered artistic rivals. Beckmann himself wished for such an exhibition: "If only our paintings could be shown together," he once lamented, sure that his work would stand up to anything accomplished by any painter of that formidable School of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

Taking Beckmann's wish as a cue, co-curators Dr. Cornelia Homburg of the St. Louis Art Museum and Tobia Bezzola of the Kunsthaus ZYrich set about organizing an exhibition that places Beckmann's works among paintings by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Georges Rouault, Fernand Leger and Robert Delaunay. The exhibition enjoyed a successful run in ZYrich and opened Feb. 6 in St. Louis. Beckmann finally got his wish.

Simple, right?
Actually, no. It couldn't be, because Beckmann's relationship to Paris was anything but simple. Beckmann and Paris accounts for that complexity. In addition to the consideration of Beckmann's works among those by his Parisian counterparts, the exhibition produces some astonishing revelations about Beckmann the artist, as well as the machinations of the European art world at a critical historical juncture. Simply put, it forces us to reconsider Beckmann's place in the history of art.

The exhibition also reveals wonderful and startling new things about Beckmann the man, his desire for fame beyond the borders of Germany and the miscalculations that marked his failed attempt to establish a reputation in Paris. It also allows us a glimpse into one of the most enduring and passionate love stories in the history of art. Beckmann's love for his second -- and much younger -- wife, nicknamed "Quappi," seems to underlie the paintings in this exhibit, many of which are lighter, more spirited and yes, even more "French" than the works we commonly associate with him.

In short, Beckmann and Paris is a triumph, and certainly one of the very best exhibitions of modern art ever staged at the St. Louis Art Museum. Like Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry, opening this month at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, Beckmann and Paris provides viewers with an opportunity to trace how the artists' formal interests and aesthetic strategies converge and diverge.

But Beckmann and Paris also contains incredibly rich historical nuance, which in turn makes the visual consideration of the works richer and more rewarding than imaginable.

If there were ever an artist in need of historical reconsideration, it is most certainly Max Beckmann. Commonly considered, in his own time and ours, the "quintessential German" artist, Beckmann is often discussed in relation to German expressionism. A facile case can be made for that categorization: Beckmann's heavy, raw forms evoke at times the style of the earlier Expressionist "BrYcke" painters such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; and Beckmann's subjects at times tend toward the mythological and the heavily symbolic. This fact alone leads many to place Beckmann in that artistic genealogy of what might be called the "Dark German Brooders," which includes everyone from GrYnewald and DYrer to George Grosz and Anselm Kiefer.

Reconsidered as he is in this exhibition, however, Beckmann emerges very much as an artist of his historical moment, trying to position himself as an important European, rather than a German, painter.

This was no easy task. Though Beckmann had by the 1920s achieved a great deal of fame in Germany, with regular one-man shows and museum galleries devoted to his work, his reputation didn't cross the border into France. To make a name as an artist in Paris, to be seen in the same light as Picasso or Matisse, became Beckmann's obsession. Indeed, the research for Beckmann and Paris uncovered a group of letters from the artist to his dealer, I.B. Neumann, that detail his strategy for conquering the European art capital. His words have all the vigor and certainty of a general preparing for military attack.

Part of Beckmann's strategy was to forge connections with a great deal of important people in Paris. The first painting in the exhibition, "Paris Society" (1925, reworked in 1931 and 1947), records the elite circle in which he traveled. It included people like the Austrian writer Prince Karl Anton von Rohan, director in Paris of the European Cultural Association (Europäischer Kulturbund); the German ambassador to France; and important bankers and publishers. The painting presents them all together, drinking champagne, dressed to the nines. It is a caricature and an homage at once.

Unfortunately for Beckmann, these were the wrong connections for him to make. As Homburg points out in the exhibition catalog, to guarantee any penetration of the Parisian art scene, Beckmann should have connected with the people who really mattered, the critics and dealers who actually dictated artistic success in Paris.

To make matters worse, Beckmann's first (and only) one-man show in Paris also misfired. It was held in 1931 at the Galerie de la Renaissance, which was an important literary center but unfortunately had few art-world credentials. Picasso reportedly saw the show, but beyond that, Beckmann's solo debut seems to have had no effect whatsoever on the world of painting in Paris.

Next Page »