Max Beckmann comes down the Avenue de l’Opéra, quite the man of the world that he was, then his wife Mathilde “Quappi”, both running alternately towards the camera. A short amateur film shot by the Beckmanns in 1930. Paris was a place of longing for the painter, and he regularly spent the winter here. In the summer, the couple liked to go to the Côte d’Azur, so it had to be the best hotels in Cap Ferrat or Menton. In 1939 they were still toying with the idea of moving permanently to the French capital, but then September 1 came, war broke out, and the Beckmanns were stuck in Amsterdam, their place of exile, intended only as a stopover after their hasty departure from Berlin in 1937.
Beckmann, born in 1884, loved to travel all his life, but he was also a victim of the times, with the move to Berlin in 1932, when things threatened to become dangerous for him in the manageable Frankfurt, then the exile in Amsterdam; finally in 1947 moving to the USA, where a new future beckoned, which then, because of his early death at the end of 1950, was only a short one.
While still in Frankfurt, Beckmann had begun a work in the monumental form of the triptych for the first time and completed it in Berlin on the last day of 1933. He titled it “Abfahrt” and ended it as “Departure”. Like hardly any other term, this not only stands for his life’s work, but for his life as a whole, which is characterized by departures and farewells. Under this title, the Munich Pinakothek der Moderne is now showing an exhibition on Beckmann’s oeuvre, which is solely dedicated to this aspect and yet at its core is something like a fully valid retrospective, the likes of which have not existed since the large overview for the 100th birthday in 1984 .
The team around exhibition curator Oliver Kase has brought together three of Beckmann’s nine triptychs alone, in addition to the “Abfahrt/Departure” from New York also the last completed in 1950, the “Argonauts” from Washington, in between “Temptation” from 1937 from their own collection. In any case, it is one of the most extensive Beckmann pictures ever, plus the Beckmann archive, which has been systematically built up for almost 50 years and was crowned with the donation of the family archive by granddaughter Mayen Beckmann in 2016.
The exhibition draws on this fund by presenting finds such as the amateur film mentioned, as well as numerous photographs and albums, all managed by Quappi; Above all, however, documents such as customs documents for his pictures, bills from hotels and ship passages and several passports, these fateful papers of the century. All of this makes sense in relation to the 80 or so paintings on display, which begin in the 1920s and last until 1950, when Beckmann once again painted a large and probably his largest city view with the panorama of San Francisco.
Beckmann neither grew up nor lived on a coast, but the sea has always been important to him as a medium of crossing into the unknown, both geographically and metaphysically. He has painted the North Sea and the Mediterranean again and again, but often enough in rugged turmoil foreshadowing the Atlantic he entrusted to his last crossings. The paintings drove ahead of him. When he received the export license for 15 of his pictures from Amsterdam to the USA in 1946, he noted: “The world starts again for me where it ended in Frankfurt a/M in late autumn 1932. 14 years exilé et condamné now free again – see we what comes next.”
In such words, entrusted to the diaries – which the Bavarian State Painting Collections are gradually digitizing and putting on the internet – it becomes clear how important traveling was to him, both self-initiated and driven from deep within. Kase speaks of an “awareness of an artistic life that grows out of existential unrest, the lack of social stability, constant fateful change, concentrated observation, the magic of the moment and the longing for the unlimited”.
This encompasses what is to be found in the paintings, behind the often cheerful, brightly colored surface, even more behind the astonishingly numerous night views illuminated by a yellow crescent moon. “For me, it’s always about capturing the magic of reality and translating this reality into painting,” he explained in London in 1938 at the opening of the “20th Century German Art” exhibition directed against “degenerate art” and its catalogue displayed in a display case – next to an official postcard (!) from the disgraceful Nazi exhibition showing a large Beckmann painting that has since been lost.
Many city and landscape views were created in the narrow domicile in Amsterdam, from memory and supported by the extensive collection of postcards that Quappi carefully guarded. We owe the family archive to his wife, who married in 1925, and decades later even the most casual hotel bill – handwritten and detailing individual drink orders – acquires the aura of a key document. All of a sudden it becomes clear what Beckmann drew and created his pictorial worlds from; but without revealing the secret of their artistic concentration.
There have been an unmanageable number of Beckmann exhibitions over the past few decades, and the literature on his oeuvre fills libraries. Of course, many of the pictures shown in Munich have already been seen elsewhere, in other contexts, in exhibitions about the landscapes or the motif of the sea. And yet everything is different in Munich. With the main theme of departure, which includes the carefree holiday trip as well as farewell and loss, even transition and transcendence, a red thread is laid through this life’s work, which, despite all interpretation, retains its deepest, inexplicable basis.
Erhard Göpel, the friend in dark hours and author of the first catalog raisonné, wrote about Beckmann: “He went out all his life in search of the golden fleece, which for him was the golden fleece of the brightly colored canvas, of the successful picture”. . The last of his triptychs shows the “Argonauts”. However, Beckmann had already painted the two young men on the central panel in 1905, on the large format “Young Men by the Sea” from his Weimar student days. In Munich, the two works hang opposite each other. The circle of life had closed. Here you can see a life’s work that seemed sufficiently well known and yet is quite new and exciting.
Munich, Pinakothek der Moderne, until March 12, 2023. www.pinakothek.de
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