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

In a wonderfully arranged section of Beckmann and Paris, the contrast between Beckmann's relationships is showcased: In one corner, two of Beckmann's portraits of his first wife, the austere Minna Beckmann-Tube, are paired with Picasso's "Woman with a Blue Veil" (1923) and "The Reader" (1920). The heavy, rounded forms of Beckmann's depictions parallel the somber, quiet classicism of Picasso's works. These portraits share a sense of introspection and solitude, of intimacy tinged with aloofness.

On the freestanding wall facing these works, Beckmann's "Quappi in Blue" (1926) is paired with Matisse's "Algerian Woman" (1909). Together they pose a startling contrast to the more somber, classical paintings they oppose. "Quappi in Blue" and Matisse's painting are bold, flirty and engaging.

The catalog of Beckmann and Paris provides even more tantalizing tastes of the love affair between Max and Quappi, featuring in particular stills from silent films they made in Paris: Max at the racetrack, Quappi in furs or a new hat, Max looking smart as he strolls down a Parisian avenue. For a period in the 1920s and early 1930s, they had a glorious time, drinking champagne and staying at fashionable hotels. Beckmann's success in Germany allowed them to live well in Paris even though he failed to establish himself there.

Quappi also experienced more trying times with Beckmann. She was the one, after all, to collect the critical reviews of Beckmann's show at the Galerie de la Renaissance, brutal as some of them were. And Quappi was the one to experience the lean years of exile in Amsterdam with Beckmann, after he had lost his prestigious post at the Stadel Academy of Art in Frankfurt and after he had been labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis and included in that infamous exhibition in 1937.

It was Quappi, finally, who accompanied Beckmann to this country after World War II, to a two-year stay in St. Louis and a position at Washington University that proved incredibly important for his legacy. While in St. Louis, Beckmann was befriended by Morton D. May, who became his great patron. May's collection of Beckmann's paintings was given over to the St. Louis Art Museum, and on the strength of this collection -- the world's largest and most important -- curator Homburg was able to launch Beckmann and Paris and borrow paintings from some of the most prestigious institutions in the world.

Beckmann and Paris is certainly registering on the Richter scale of international art. For the opening, representatives from major museums and journals were in attendance, the St. Louis elite mingled with cultural attaches, and it all made the international art news.

Some of the events organized to mark the opening of Beckmann and Paris in St. Louis -- the dinners, receptions and previews -- seemed to echo the aristocratic, elegant soirees Beckmann himself enjoyed as a member of an elite international circle in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. In this there is a kind of poetic logic, a coming-full-circle for Beckmann, as we witness his artistic investment finally paying off on an international scale. The undeniable cachet that accompanies an exhibition of this magnitude would probably have appealed to Beckmann.

But for all the giddy celebration surrounding Beckmann and Paris, the exhibition itself ends on a melancholy note. The final gallery of the exhibition features paintings of acrobats, harlequins and clowns. These popular entertainers have been featured in European paintings for centuries. Yet 20th-century artists such as Picasso, Beckmann and Rouault attached very complex layers of meaning to these figures. The artists often use them as alter egos; they embody anxiety and insecurity that the artists may not otherwise have felt free to express.

On one wall of this final gallery, Rouault's "Three Clowns" (1917/1920) is paired with Beckmann's "The King" (1933/37). These paintings are dark, and the figures look heavy, weighted down and tired. Beckmann's king is clearly a tortured self-portrait. It seems emblematic of his life as an artist. For if the current exhibition fulfills one of Beckmann's most cherished ambitions, it also reflects some of the bitter failures of his career, some of them owing to his own miscalculations, some to forces of history beyond his control.

Beckmann and Paris is at the St. Louis Art Museum through May 9.

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