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.

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."

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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