Bridges to the Invisible

Max Beckmann in Exile 1997 Barbara Stehlé-Akhtar, Reinhard Spieler, Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann, and Eric Fischl.

exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo October 9, 1996-January 5,. Catalog of the exhibition with contributions by Matthew Drutt,
Guggenheim Museum, 142 pp., $33.95

Self-Portrait in Words: Collected Writings and Statements, 1903-1950

by Max Beckmann, edited and translated by Barbara C. Buenger
University of Chicago Press, 420 pp., $34.95

Descend with me to lower Broadway and the Guggenheim Museum there (suggestive, in its converted old warehouse, of a discount outlet for the goods on display in the chic spiralling main emporium on upper Fifth Avenue) and discover, upon arising from the subway and perambulating half-gentrified streets thronged with jubilantly hairy youths and tall thin girls clad entirely in this season’s remorseless black, and then upon threading through the bustling museum shop, with its plastic spread of modernist kitsch, past the vast flashing bank of computer-manipulated, laserdisc-fed television monitors designed by Nam June Paik and entitled Megatron—discover, I say (its doors as discreetly marked as its financial sponsorship by Lufthansa and Deutsche Bank), an exhibit of twenty-one late paintings, including seven of his famous triptychs, by Max Beckmann (1884-1950).

What have we here, so incongruously nestled under a second-floor show of electronic manipulations and virtually empty rooms called Mediascape? We have painting, pure and simple—painting that in its clarion colors, packed human groupings, and unmistakable metaphysical intent recalls the grand European tradition. We are challenged, in this age of acute aesthetic impatience, wherein visual stimulations have the duration and subtlety of electric shock treatments, by works so nakedly, simply representations in pigment and yet so stubbornly withholding of easy pleasures and a clear message. Some sort of colorful struggle is going on, but in terms almost entirely selfish, with no appeal to a public, by a sensibility to whom the Self is a self-evidently potent entity.

Beckmann, like Thomas Mann a scion of the German merchant class, was born into an intellectual world where Hegelian categories still shaped vision. Also like Mann, he was considered, by his avant-garde peers, to be conservative. He posed for himself in a tuxedo, for instance, and he disliked paintings that looked abstract or flat. In the pre-World War I hurly-burly of artistic theorizing, he disavowed connection with the brief-lived German Expressionist groups die Brücke and der blaue Reiter. He claimed to have no program, stating in 1914 that “all theory and all matters of principle in painting are hateful to me.” Nevertheless, he could issue pithy statements with lofty overtones. In 1938, a year after leaving Germany forever, he stated before an English audience:

What I want to show in my work is the idea that hides itself behind so-called reality. I am seeking the bridge that leads from the visible to the invisible…. It may sound paradoxical, but it is, in fact, reality which forms the mystery of our existence…. One of my problems is to find the self, which has only one form and is immortal…. Art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement; for transfiguration, not for the sense of play. It is the quest of our self that drives us along the eternal and never-ending journey we must all make.

Nine years later, addressing his first art class in the United States, he again insisted on the role of the self in painting:

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