Many museum retrospectives are overly ambitious, tying together work from across an artist’s lifetime, and in turn providing art-goers with easy-to-consume, oversimplified narratives that do little to deepen understanding of the work or the artist. That’s why “Max Beckmann and Berlin” is such a sight for sore eyes. Intelligent pairings of extraordinary pieces by Beckmann and his contemporaries succeed in illuminating the shifts in Beckmann’s artistic development, through the two periods of his life spent in Berlin, from 1904-1914, and then from 1933-1937.
Straight away, you’re bound to get drawn into the first painting Beckmann made in Berlin, “Young Men by the Sea” (1906), a large-scale, picturesque scene of nude, muscular men loitering on the beach, choppy waters and dramatic clouds in the distance. Right next to it is a very similar image, Max Liebermann’s “Bathing Boys” (1907). The theme, use of colour modulation and similarities between the two make a great case for the influence German Impressionism (Liebermann’s camp) had on Beckmann as a young painter.
In the same room is a pairing that is stylistically dissimilar yet closely related: Beckmann’s “Small Death Scene” (1906) and Edvard Munch’s lithograph “The Death in the Sickroom” (1896), each depicting quietly distraught mourners, with their deceased loved ones in the background. Comparing the two is interesting in its own right, but make sure to glance back at “Young Men by the Sea,” painted the same year, yet astonishingly different. Beckmann’s artistic agility, employing diverse sets of colours, brushstrokes and compositions, is already vivid in the first room.
“The Flood” (1908) commands the second room of the exhibition, exemplary of his controversial push back against the burgeoning Expressionism of the day. This work could not be more different in style and mood than “Girl with Cat II” (1912) by Franz Marc, who had a heated public debate with Beckmann over the new movement. In contrast, the portrait “Hans Rabe” (1911) is almost a mirror image of Munch’s “Harry Graf Kessler” (1906).
The third room is dedicated to the bustling metropolis Beckmann temporarily called home. Other paintings provide comparisons to the Berlin of today – “Kaiserdamm” (1911), a peaceful, snowy European boulevard scene with a decadent purple sky and “Tauentzienstraße” (1913), which offers a view of the pre-war Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, as if seen from the front door of the recently opened KaDeWe. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Nollendorfplatz” (1912) brings you back from the delight of studying the Berlin of the past, to considering the dramatic variations in depicting it.
After one year as a volunteer nurse during World War I, Beckmann had a nervous breakdown and moved to Frankfurt. He returned to Berlin in 1922, and made “Berlin Trip”, a sort of reportage portfolio of 10 lithographs, six of which are on view, and an absolute must see. Each lithograph offers a dark or debauched scene of the Golden Twenties, complete with a self-portrait in his hotel, poor people in the street, and nude cabaret dancers. The busy compositions practically burst at the seams with detail, all rendered with a disturbing crookedness of line, indicative of his major shift in style towards Expressionism following the traumatizing experience of war.
Further embodying this stylistic departure is “The Organ Grinder” (1935), a confounding painting imbued with mixed symbolism that commands the third room. Nearby are numerous other works, with bold use of black lines and deep colours, made during Beckmann’s second and final period in Berlin, where he was forced to lay low after being labelled a “degenerate artist” by the National Socialists. In 1937 he emigrated to Amsterdam, then the U.S., and never came back to Germany.
Turning the corner out of the last room, you are met with Beckmann himself, in the form of several self-portraits made throughout his life, for which he is much celebrated. Here, too, a major jump occurs in “Self-Portrait with Champagne Glass” (1919). Seen alongside “Self-Portrait, Florence” (1907), you wouldn’t guess they were painted by the same man.
“Max Beckmann and Berlin” offers otherwise unseen comparisons that engage the viewer in questioning Beckmann’s development in the city. But given when he lived here, a solemn story also unfolds about the devastating impact the World Wars, and particularly World War II, had on artists and the whole field of cultural production in Germany. This incredibly talented and driven artist was denounced, hundreds of his works were seized from museums and he was forced to flee. All this begs another, hypothetical comparison between the creative path Beckmann was once on, and the one he ended up being compelled to take.
Max Beckmann and Berlin | Berlinische Galerie, Alte Jakobstr. 124-128, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kochstrasse. Wed-Mon 10-18. Through February 15.