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

Beckmann himself may not be solely to blame for the failure of his attempts to establish a reputation in the city of his rivals. Historical forces were against him as well. In this period after World War I, it would have been difficult for any German artist to gain favor and popularity among the French. Moreover, Beckmann's 1931 exhibition was partly financed by the Europäischer Kulturbund and so might have seemed less like an art exhibition and more like a diplomatic event staged to promote cultural harmony between Germany and France.

In terms of what it can tell us about his art, Beckmann's 1931 exhibition in Paris was very important. In preparing Beckmann and Paris, curatorial researchers unearthed fascinating archival material relating to the Galerie de la Renaissance exhibition, the paintings it included, even the way they were arranged. We now know, for example, that for Beckmann's Parisian debut, he consciously selected works that would hold more appeal for the French sensibility.

Something similar, ironically, was done with Beckmann and Paris. The curators were admittedly selective, choosing Beckmann paintings that lend themselves more easily to comparison with artists like Picasso, Matisse, Leger and Rouault. Many of the works in this show are less "Teutonic." They contain less of the heavy symbolism of some of Beckmann's more brooding meditations on the forces of history that led, for example, to his own exile from Germany beginning in 1937.

But it would be wrong to assume that the curatorial selectivity that went into Beckmann and Paris creates some false sense of Beckmann's art. In fact, much of Beckmann's oeuvre is very much in the spirit of the aesthetic experiments being carried out from the 1920s onward in Paris.

After all, Beckmann's early artistic sensibility was shaped by the same forces as was Picasso's, or Matisse's, or Leger's. Beckmann had learned his art by studying 19th-century French artists, such as Eugene Delacroix, the Impressionists, and the structural experiments of Paul Cezanne. These were the artistic models for every European painter at this time.

And so it is not surprising to see that Beckmann's paintings lend themselves to a direct comparison to works by his Parisian contemporaries. All these painters, at one time or another, pursued work on similar themes: nudes, odalisques, still lifes, observations of contemporary life, bathing scenes, seascapes and sporting scenes. Beckmann and Paris is organized according to these themes, and allows us to see each artist's individual, idiosyncratic approach to them.

It is particularly rewarding to view Beckmann's still lifes in the context of those by Picasso and Braque. Though Beckmann quite confidently considered himself at least their artistic equal, he was never interested in taking up Cubism itself. Nevertheless, in a painting such as "Large Still Life, Blue Interior" (1949), Beckmann ventures into an almost Cubist analysis of objects contained within a complex space. He shifts perspective points, flattening forms and interweaving mass and space, using the grid pattern of a door as a structural backdrop.

The painting issues a kind of challenge to its neighbor in this exhibition, Picasso's "Tomato Plant" (1944), which also contains an experimental structural arrangement against a grid pattern. It's as if both artists investigated the possibilities of pitting their shifted perspectives and twisted forms against the stability and strength of the grid. But even though the approach is comparable, the finished paintings bear the characteristic stamps of the artists.

Beckmann nods to Cubism again in "Smoked Herring" (1928), a still life of fish on a table, with the word "SEE" ("sea") painted boldly over it. This interweaving of text and image is something pioneered by Picasso and Braque in their years of Cubist experimentation. It's fascinating to see Beckmann pick up this technique, even if it is in only one work, and tempting to read this painting as a kind of acknowledgment of Cubist accomplishments in aesthetic terms that are strictly Beckmann's.

Not all of the works in Beckmann and Paris, it is worth noting, were produced during his prolonged stays in that city. But they all appear to be the result of Beckmann's complex relationship with the city, its history and art, and the challenge he felt was posed by the painters working there. Wherever he found himself, Beckmann was always painfully aware of the achievements of the Parisians, and he saw himself in direct competition with them. Beckmann and Paris is an attempt to summarize the effects of that city, and its artists, on his art.

Paris is inflected in Beckmann's paintings in still another way: They bear the mark of his passionate love affair with his second wife, Mathilde von Kaulbach, whom he called "Quappi." Max and Quappi married in 1925, when Beckmann was over 40 and Quappi only 21.

By all accounts, Max Beckmann was hopelessly head-over-heels in love with Quappi. Their love bloomed in Paris, where they spent much of their time until their exile in Amsterdam in 1939. The heady exuberance of their time in Paris made its way into Beckmann's art. The paintings he produced in those years are remarkable. They are lighter in palette but still controlled in form; they are passionate, at times humorous, but tempered as always by Beckmann's characteristic seriousness. As co-curator Bezzola points out in the catalog, they are "champagne cocktails with a hint of cyanide."

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