Tag Archives: Max Beckmann

“Max Beckmann in New York” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950), oil on canvas, 55-1/8 x 36″; The St. Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May/All images are courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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My students, art majors all, have been complaining about the readings I’ve been assigning as of late. These handouts—essays and excerpted vignettes by writers as diverse as Ernst Gombrich, Fairfield Porter, Camille Paglia, and Robertson Davies—are intended to give students an idea of the sweeping nature of art and art-making, both within academia and out in the much vilified “real world.”The point of these readings—or one of them, anyway—is to encourage students to think beyond mere self-expression and underline that, in the end, art achieves its own wily independence. The complaint is that the handouts are dispiriting. This response is prompted, in part, by the dawning realization—a realization that gains in intensity the closer graduation approaches—that the artist’s life is a tough row to hoe. There’s the cost of studio space in New York City, the vagaries of commerce, the niceties of keeping a roof over one’s head and, not least, the state of the world. What is the worth of art in an age of economic freefall, rampant terrorism, unceasing wars, and distracting technologies? Positivity of some sort would seem to be in order.

And then I found just the reading during an attempt at clearing out my bookshelves. Pulling out a dusty copy of Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp’s indispensable compendium of statements, manifestos, and observations by artists, critics, and sundry outliers, I opened it to a random page. There I read that “art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement; for transfiguration, not for the sake of play.” The writer continues:

There are two worlds: the world of spiritual life and the world of political reality. Both are manifestations of life which may sometimes coincide but are very different in principle. I must leave it to you to decide what is the more important.

What follows is an avowal, albeit a quixotic one, of art’s primacy in the face of devastation—written, no less, by a refugee fleeing a culture upended by a group of demagogues bent on world domination, ethnic purity, and with few qualms about the cost these goals might take in human life. “Human sympathy and understanding must be reinstated . . . in the midst of a boundless world turmoil.” “On My Painting,” a 1938 lecture by the German artist Max Beckmann, carries with it echoes of life, here, in the twenty-first century.

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Max Beckmann, Family Picture (1920), oil on canvas, 22-5/8 x 39-13″;The Museum of Modern Art

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Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Beckmann’s art knows that it doesn’t trade in easy optimism. There are sunnier exemplars for artists seeking a reason to keep on keepin’ on. Beckmann’s densely packed compositions are, after all, visited by nightmarish visions marked by displacement, violence, and anomie. Torture is a commonplace and claustrophobia the rule. Chronology is over-turned; historical touchstones shuffled. Myth permeates the proceedings, as does the theater. Mummers, harlots, royalty, and socialites engage in ritualistic narratives whose meaning remains occluded even as they take on grave momentum. If Beckmann’s hybrids of man and beast aren’t quite as elastic as those of Hieronymus Bosch or Francesco Goya, it’s indicative less of a lack of imagination than of an age in which faith was supplanted by doubt. Then there are the numerous self-portraits. Beckmann is pictured as ever confrontational, his terse slip of a mouth evincing a temperament hostile to, if not unamused by, nonsense. They are among the most daunting portraits in the history of art.

It came as a shock, then, to encounter a photo of an early version of Self-Portrait with Horn (1938) reproduced in the catalogue accompanying “Max Beckmann in New York.” Originally owned by Beckmann’s friend Stephan Lackner, the author and collector, the painting has since been acquired by, and become a staple of, the Neue Galerie, the museum of Germanic art located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. On the occasion of its 2008 exhibition, “Max Beckmann: Self- Portrait with Horn,” I commented on the picture’s “silence”:

Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation.

It’s hard to believe that an image haunted by an indelible mix of skepticism and sobriety was once light-hearted. But there it is, in not-so-vivid black-and-white: Beckmann smiling. Why was the image transformed, and in no small way? Sabine Rewald, the Met’s Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator for Modern Art and organizer of “Max Beckmann in New York,” conjectures that “confronting his so relentlessly cheerful self every day in the studio must have irritated [the artist].” As it stands, Self-Portrait with Horn is a powerhouse, even by Beckmann’s rigorous standards.

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Max  Beckmann, Paris Society (1925/1931/1947), oil on canvas, 43 x 69-1/8″; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY

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The Neue Galerie painting is one of seven self-portraits viewers encounter upon entering “Max Beckmann in New York.” As opening gambits go, it’s pretty bracing and divulges a surprising admixture of whimsy and artifice. The earliest self-portraits on display are dated 1923; the last is from 1950, the year of Beckmann’s death at sixty-six. Stylistically, Beckmann moved from softly modeled forms to flattened areas of color held in check by brushy black lines. (With the exception of Matisse, and including Picasso, no other twentieth-century painter employed black with as much dexterity or nuance.) Beckmann is revealed to have been more of a showman than some of us previously thought. Cognizant of the status conferred upon The Artist, Beckmann toyed with its presumptions. Whether donning a sailor suit or what looks to be a pair of pajamas, or even (and this is the giveaway) surrounding himself with circus trappings, Beckmann engages in a hugely underplayed form of self-deprecation. His “disdain for people was considerable,” wrote a journalist taking note of the artist in the early twenties, but “under his prickly shell he concealed a highly vulnerable sensitivity, one that he sometimes mockingly exposed.”

The impetus for “Max Beckmann in New York” is Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, the afore-mentioned canvas from 1950. Painted during the winter and spring of that year, Beckmann depicted himself as being more vigorous and virile than the rumpled figure seen in photographs of the time. The stony visage and ever-present cigarette we know about, but Beckmann’s torso swells upward like those of the warriors seen on the red Attic vases of ancient Greece, heroic images from which he took inspiration. The painting isn’t without its well-played ironies: an insomniac suffering from heart ailments and given to anxiety should be allowed some license when translating physical frailty into pictorial muscle. Beckmann’s health gave out on the corner of Sixty-ninth Street and Central Park West–he died of a heart attack on the way to see “American Painting 1950,” an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among that show’s featured attractions? Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket. The story is poignant (as Ms. Rewald notes), but am I alone in feeling that the artist might have derived a grim pleasure in its you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up circumstances?

Beckmann’s time as a New Yorker was brief: sixteen months. The road to the city was circuitous. Born in Leipzig in 1884, he studied at the Weimar Academy as a teenager and subsequently made his way to Berlin. Beckmann was ambitious from the get-go, setting himself up against the Old Masters he revered. (Early on, a critic described him as the “German Delacroix,” an appellation that must have been the source of no small pride for the young painter.) Beckmann was attuned to contemporary trends in art as well, taking note of the paintings by his countryman Louis Corinth, as well as those by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Renown came early for Beckmann and continued after his stint as a medic during the First World War. He was discharged from the army due to exhaustion—PTSD in contemporary parlance—and who can wonder that the work became caustic, blunt, and forbidding? His success as a painter and teacher came to a halt with the advent of National Socialism. The Nazis tarred Beckmann as a “cultural Bolshevik” and “degenerate.” He fled to Holland with his second wife, Mathilde, known by the nickname Quappi. After ten years squirreled away in Amsterdam, Beckmann and Quappi were granted visas to the United States in 1947. They settled first in St. Louis and then New York.

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Max Beckmann, center panel of Beginning (1949), oil on canvas, 69 x 59″; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide de Groot

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“Max Beckmann in New York” includes fourteen paintings Beckmann created while living in the city, along with twenty-five works borrowed from New York collections. The show is by no means a retrospective, but it’s a reasonably full accounting all the same. The pictures span thirty years and include Beckmann’s best-known work: the magisterial Departure (1932–33), a triptych that has long been a mainstay of The Museum of Modern Art. This format was a favorite of Beckmann’s, recalling, as it did, Renaissance altarpieces. Among the highlights of the Met’s own collection is Beginning (1946–49), a triptych begun while Beckmann was exiled in Holland. A meditation on childhood (the original title was, in fact, L’Enfance), the work is beyond the bounds of rational analysis, particularly the crammed-to-the-rafters center panel in which, among much else, a sultry Amazon blows bubbles, a clown skulks in an alcove, and a cat wearing army boots is suspended, upside-down, from the ceiling. Beckmann was adamant that his art leave the studio with its mysteries intact. Responding to an American dealer who asked if a picture could be, you know, explained—presumably to aid in marketing—Beckmann ordered him to “take the picture away or send it back.”

New York City offered the kind of spectacle this most cosmopolitan of artists thrived on: “All in all, New York represents the most extreme case of grotesque gigantism until now achieved by mankind. It suits me just fine.” It’s odd that Beckmann never painted the city, at least directly. The Met show includes pictures of Frankfurt, Oakland, and San Francisco—but Manhattan? It’s seen only tangentially in Cafe Interior with Mirror-Play (1949), a vertiginous depiction of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, and Plaza (Hotel Lobby) (1950), a favorite watering hole of Beckmann’s. Ms. Rewald posits The Town (City Night) (1950) as an “‘homage’ to nocturnal New York,” taking as her cue the image of an envelope addressed to “Mr M Beckmann New York USA” located at the lower left of the canvas. It’s a reasonable supposition given the painting’s kaleidoscopic jumble and clash of cultural references. Beckmann was a devotee of New York nightlife—the clubs, dives, and stage shows in which “vulgarity reigned.” It’s an appropriately noisy picture, but not one of Beckmann’s finest efforts. The composition doesn’t quite hold true; it heaves and stutters, and the juxtapositions in scale are clunky and cramped. Over the top by even the standards of a sturdy fabulist, The Town (City Night) is a mish-mosh of demons, troubadours, commissars, phallic symbols, and, in dead center, a bound female nude. Sometimes splendid excess is less than splendid.

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Max Beckmann, Quappi in Grey (1948), oil on canvas, 42-1/2 x 31-1/8″; Private Collection, NY

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Among the most striking aspects of Beckmann’s vision is that, notwithstanding his meditations on human folly and vice, it never descends into nihilism or despair. The paintings bristle and bump with appetite—for life’s absurdities, absolutely, but primarily for life itself. It’s worth mentioning that a number of Beckmann pictures concern themselves with everyday epiphanies—the ocean as seen from a hotel terrace; the forest surrounding a university town; an untended corner of the studio; and his beloved Quappi, whose handsome countenance appears repeatedly in the oeuvre. The center panel of Departure has famously—and rightfully—been cited as a marker of Beckmann’s holistic worldview. Blue skies and family, the painting would seem to suggest, sustain us in the midst of history’s cruelest turns. It’s no surprise that Beckmann disliked being lumped in with the Expressionists: self-pity and narcissism were antithetical to the “fullness, roundness, and the vitally pulsing” to which he aspired. The stern and heady embrace of “essential things” is palpable throughout “Max Beckmann in New York,” and is but one reason we should look to this demanding artist as a guidepost in our troubled times.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

Stubbornly Independent: Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With Horn (1938), oil on canvas, 43-1/2″ x 39-3/4″; courtesy The Neue Galerie

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The following review was originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Max Beckmann in New York“, an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. My review of that exhibition will be appearing in the December 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

Felix Nussbaum’s Self in Concentration Camp (1940), a painting included in the exhibition Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait With Horn at the Neue Galerie, is as bleak as the title implies. Wearing a wool cap, a tattered jacket and a lean beard, the artist looks askance with steely distrust. In the background, a figure defecates into a large metal can. There’s barbed wire, a sky the color of steel wool and an air of Boschian portent.

Bosch’s hell couldn’t compare with Hitler’s. While studying in Rome, Nussbaum, a German Jew, heard Hitler’s minister of propaganda advocate for the Nazi ideal of art; Nussbaum realized soon enough that neither he nor his paintings fit the standard. Nussbaum spent the majority of the war in hiding, continuing to paint, and ultimately died in Auschwitz at the age of 39. Self in Concentration Camp has the awful clarity of a foregone conclusion.

Nussbaum’s painting is diverting enough to make one curious as to what else he did. It’s included in the Neue Galerie exhibition to provide a sense of social and artistic context. There are paintings, drawings and prints—all portraits—by other Beckmann contemporaries as well, but none can equal the brooding power of Self-Portrait with Horn, not even the magisterially detached Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain (1923) by the man himself. As for the rest: Heinrich Hoerle, Georg Scholz, Ludwig Meidner, Otto Dix and George Grosz are little more than historical wallpaper. Beckmann thunders through the gallery.

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Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait in Concentration Camp (1940), oil on wood, 52.5 x 41.5 cm.; courtesy The Neue Galerie, NY

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Beckmann (1884-1950) achieved early success; a self-portrait of the time depicts an unctuous talent with a glib hand for self-aggrandizement.

The First World War put an end to Beckmann the Dandy. He suffered a nervous collapse while serving as a medical orderly on the Belgian front. The paintings that followed his recovery were cramped and muscular dioramas rife with bizarre symbols and occluded narratives. Amalgams of the city, the torture chamber, the Garden of Eden, the circus and the King’s tribunal, Beckmann’s world held an unsparing mirror to the horrors and absurdities of the 20th century.

Beckmann kept a skeptical distance from Modernism—the past weighed too heavily for him to fully embrace radical innovation—but that’s not to say he wasn’t interested. Certainly, Beckmann took inspiration from Matisse’s subtle elisions of color and line. But mostly he was stubbornly independent.

Beckmann lumbered through history, fascinated with the eternal ubiquity of humankind’s foibles, illusions and cruelties. Myth haunted his art, as did a florid sense of purpose: Each person must go through life with the knowledge of, as Beckmann put it, “the murder everyone commits … [Y]ou can never rid yourself of your past, you must carry the corpse along, and Life beats the drum.”

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Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With A Saxophone (1930), oil on canvas, 140.5 x 69.5 cm.; courtesy Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany

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Beckmann was modern enough for the Nazis to peg him as degenerate. Over 20 of his paintings were included in “Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art),” the infamous 1937 exhibition mounted expressly to ridicule modern “Jewish” and “Bolshevik” art. A self-described “good German,” Beckmann was bewildered by the rise of National Socialism and conflicted about leaving his home country. But on the opening night of “Entarte Kunst,” he and his wife, Quappi, took a train to Amsterdam, where they would live in exile for the next 10 years. It was there that Beckmann painted Self Portrait with Horn.

We see Beckmann from the waist up, standing slightly off center. He wears an orange and black patterned robe. His right hand reaches up tentatively. His left grasps a white horn. To the right is a red and black bar—a curtain, maybe, or a canvas—that puts us at a distinct remove. A mirror frames his grand pate. Beckmann’s mouth is set with grim determination. His expression is a mix of suspicion, fear and curiosity. Rarely has isolation been rendered as airless and monumental.

The horn is a recurring motif in Beckmann’s art, and its symbolic import is clear even as its meaning is elusive. Writing in the catalog, art historian Jill Lloyd chases down associations and comes up with a provocatively inclusive jumble. There’s sex, of course—Jung is dragged in for a passing reflection on the horn as both a penetrating object and a receptacle—but also memento mori, a Courbet hunting scene, an instrument to summon “conscience and attention,” a gramophone, a clown’s prop and, oh yes, music.

The most disconcerting thing about Self-Portrait with Horn is its silence.Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation. There’s something fast and mean in how the red and black drape obscures it. Beckmann admired the Courbet painting for its “beautiful clear triumph.” Whatever triumph exists in the stunted space in which the artist and the horn are imprisoned has been rendered moot. It’s a harsh and lonely picture.

Ms. Lloyd likens the Beckmann self-portrait to those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. The German’s vision was too wide-ranging to settle for Vincent’s narrow self-involvement. Though less charitable than Rembrandt, Beckmann was equally honest, introspective and incisive. The 300 year or so gap between Rembrandt and Beckmann is virtually extinguished by shared conviction, authority and moral truth. What would an exhibition exploring their commonalities reveal? The Neue Galerie could do worse than attempt an answer.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

On The Importance of Drawing

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Following is the text of a lecture I gave at The New York Studio School on April 10, 1996. It was written before Chelsea became the commercial hub of the international art scene–note the antiquated nod to SoHo–and before virtual reality became the cultural legerdemain. (Alas, some things never change: see the not-so-antiquated mention of Jeff Koons.) At a time when art rooted in observed phenomena is increasingly pooh-poohed as unnecessary, I thought it a good time to post the talk. Some minor stylistic changes have been made. Otherwise the words remain the same as they were sixteen years ago; certainly, the sentiments are unchanged.

One of my favorite anecdotes involves a family friend, an erudite gentleman very much of the old school–a cosmopolitan in touch with the verities of culture. Upon learning that I had studied to become a painter, the first question asked was not whether I was a successful artist. It was: Can you draw? The question rankled. As an art student, I was drilled in drawing from the figure and had achieved a certain proficiency as a draftsman. My first answer to “Can you draw” was:  Well, sure. My second response was: Why should that matter?

The questioning of my drawing abilities chagrined me for some time. Not because I felt it to be an insulting question, but because, as an art student, I had resented being required to take innumerable figure drawing and painting classes toward the completion of my degree. I received my BFA from the University of Utah in 1984. While it is a city renowned for many things, art isn’t one of them. Among the cluster of artists working in Salt Lake there was a wry bemusement about their standing in relation to the country’s cultural centers and, especially, New York. As a serious young art student–and young art students are usually a very serious bunch–I, too, was aware of my cultural isolation. Consequently, I gobbled up all of the glossy art magazines in an attempt to capture just an iota of all the goings-on in the New York gallery scene. That is, of course, when I found time between all of those damned figure drawing classes.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photo © 2011 Jim Steinhart

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When I arrived in New York City in the mid-80s, a curious thing happened. When I was able–finally!–to view the art I had read so much about, I found it less than thrilling. A lot of it wasn’t thrilling at all. While there was good art to be seen in the galleries, I spent more time than I ever thought I would standing in front of Old Master paintings at the Met. I came to the realization that this made me, in the estimation of some of my peers, unhip. Well, better that than adulating the current crop of art stars. Why admire a bunch of guys who can’t, you know, draw?

I have since come to the conclusion that drawing–specifically, drawing from the figure–matters quite a lot. This, I realize, does not qualify as earth-shaking news. But I say it knowing that, in more than a few quarters of the art world, the notion of “good drawing” counts for little, if it is thought of at all. Even infrequent visitors to SoHo know that a lot of what is exhibited in the galleries has little to do with drawing, let alone what we value as art. Of the many things I know about Jeff Koons, and of the many things I wish I didn’t know about Jeff Koons, I am positive he could not care less about drawing. This indifference is only one reason, but an important one, why much contemporary art is pointless and ugly.

We live in the age of Conceptualism; we are, in fact, dominated by it. Conceptualism values intention over the object. Art, under these terms, is material proof of an artist’s idea. Conceptualism has little regard for tradition–forget the traditions of painting, drawing and sculpture. Conceptualism has, however, proven remarkably proficient at promoting novelty and is, in this regard, an unqualified success. This success has resulted in exhibitions that are full of stuff to see and nothing to look at. Conceptual Art isn’t art–it’s a vehicle for commentary that pimps the prestige of High Art. The artist’s very own smarts–that’s the locus of Conceptualism. It’s an inherently and inescapably narcissistic belief system.

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What does all of this have to do with drawing? Conceptual artists make a lot of drawings, of a sort anyway. And the world has never been lacking for narcissists. But it’s no coincidence that the rise of Conceptualism, both in our museums and in the academy, corresponds to the devaluation of traditional schooling in the arts. Who needs to go through the rigors of drawing from the figure–you know, with anatomy and proportions and stuff–if all an artist has to do is find a predictably outrageous outlet for a predictably outrageous opinion? (Besides finding an audience that will be predictably outraged by it.) What on earth does that have to do with drawing?

Not much and everything. This begs the question: What is drawing or, should I say, good drawing? Whenever I’m confronted by the question, I’m tempted to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s response, in 1964, when asked to define pornography:  “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” A glib answer, sure, but it is handy, particularly in a field where seeing is everything. How can anyone present the astonishing representational clarity of a drawing by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres alongside, say, the groping, abstract scratching of Philip Guston? They are so dissimilar as to make the comparison absurd. But both are good drawings. What links them, I would suggest, is a thorough and disciplined grounding in drawing from life.

To be schooled in drawing, and to carry the lessons learned from it throughout a lifetime of creating art, involves a constant questioning of the world of appearances and things. It requires a willingness to meet with a person or an object halfway, to get outside of oneself if only for a moment, and to convey that experience to another person through marks made on a flat surface. The work of Alberto Giacometti attests to the difficulty inherent in such an enterprise. It also attests to the beauty that can be elicited when such a project is undertaken with diligence, receptivity, a sense of history, a modicum of talent and luck.

Alberto Giacometti, Drawing of Van Gogh on a page of John Rewald’s’ 1961 book on Post-Impressionism; photo by Eykyn Maclean, courtesy The New York Times

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Giacometti considered this enterprise doomed to failure (we should all be failures on the scale of Giacometti), and I don’t want to suggest that being a capable draftsman alone qualifies one as a major artist. There are plenty of people who can draw a convincing likeness of a person or a thing, but who we would hesitate to call artists. David Hockney can draw very well, but I wouldn’t consider him a good painter so much as an amiable illustrator. Nor does being an uninspired draftsman necessarily lead to uninspired art. Cézanne was a clunky hand at drawing and yet the art of the last century is unimaginable without him. But Cézanne is an exception to the rule and, on the whole, the rule holds. Drawing from life is an integral grounding to the creation of significant art.

While this grounding may be obvious in the case of representational artists, with abstract artists the connection can be slippery. It is, nonetheless, there. If we ask that a painting or sculpture be an autonomous object–a thing with its own inherent vitality–it must also have some connection with the world it occupies. If we ask that a painter create a convincing illusion of a world, then it is necessary to have had an encounter with actual objects and actual space. The art critic Robert Hughes wrote that “the philosophical beauty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees.” Anyone who attended the great Mondrian retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art can attest to the truth of this statement. What we learn from Mondrian is that drawing from life can inform abstract art just as it can with figurative art. It can serve as a scaffolding for art which veers away from representation. Drawing is an armature that can be overt and covert.

That is why we accept the distortions of the human form in a painting by Max Beckmann as natural–because they are of a piece pictorially. You would never mistake his anatomical exaggerations, which can approach the cartoonish but are never without a certain stubborn gravity, for those of an amateur. One of my favorite aspects of Beckmann’s work is how a figure will be distorted only to be pinched by an area of “anatomical correctness”. You see this in Matisse’s work; Picasso and de Kooning’s as well. These artists lay foundations for their pictorial inventions by anchoring them with snippets of tangibility. Drawing is an indispensable component in the structuring of a work of art, as well as the means by which is it animated by lived experience.

Max Beckmann, The Night (1918-19), oil on canvas, 52-3/8″ x 60-1/4″; courtesy Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen

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For the past few years, I have been teaching a basic drawing course for Pratt Institute’s School of Professional Studies. Of the many lessons I’ve taken away from teaching, one has stayed with me more than most. And it resulted from a student who was, yes, the bad apple who spoils the bunch.

This student insisted on snorting, snuffling and guffawing through each drawing session, incessantly making snide comments about the other student’s drawings, as well as his own. This was, however, until one evening when I had the students warm-up with a blind contour drawing–an exercise wherein the students draw a person or object without looking at the paper. I had set up a still-life featuring a single object: an old fashioned meat grinder, a wonderfully sinuous contraption that I had purchased at a flea market. It was a good thing to draw; my students were given an hour to do so. It was a peculiarly silent hour. Not a peep was heard from the students, least of all my troublesome student. He was drawing with an intensity that was out of character. He kept his mouth shut for 47 minutes. (I timed it.)

During the break, this student approached me. “I want to tell you something. I wasn’t drawing the meat-grinder. I was experiencing it.” He was shaken and I was pleased–for two reasons. First: after this “experience”, my student pretty much kept his mouth shut for the remainder of the semester. Second: I like to think my student’s world had become a little larger and a little richer. That such an experience arose from, of all things, a meat-grinder, says a lot about the peculiarities inherent in the creative process.

Nicolas Poussin, Crossing the Red Sea (1647), pen and brush, brown wash and black chalk, 7-1/2″ x 13″; courtesy The Academy of the Arts, Petrograd

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The platitude that art makes us see the world as if we’d never seen it before is ages old. It’s used by artists, teachers, critics and the chairs of arts organizations when they are explaining (or defending) their avowed purpose in contributing to culture. I don’t want to condone the promiscuous use of clichés, but they usually contain a kernel of truth, and this is a good one. Anyone who has stood in front of a picture or a sculpture and been moved by it knows what a pleasurable and unsettling experience it can be. It reaffirms that there are bigger things to know and that they can be known.

Which brings us back to drawing. One of my favorite quotes about drawing comes from John Berger, a critic with whom I often disagree but who, nonetheless, has sharp insights into art. In an essay titled “Drawing On Paper”, Berger describes a space within [a] drawing” that is “as large as the earth’s or the sky’s space . . .

“Poussin could create such a space; so could Rembrandt. That the achievement is rare . . . may be because such space only opens up when extraordinary mastery is combined with extraordinary modesty. To create such a space one has to know oneself to be very small.”

The notion that two of our greatest painters drew with “extraordinary modesty” presents a sobering lesson in creativity. Drawing is a humbling experience. Need I add that humbling experiences are those we learn the most from?

Drawing from life isn’t an all-purpose panacea to what ails the art of our time. But drawing can form a link to what is out there, a connection with the world and with others. This might seem a hokey sentiment, but only when placed within the narrow legacy of Conceptualism, which has traded in an increasingly debased cynicism since Marcel Duchamp finished putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Drawing isn’t an imposition on the world–as, I would argue, Conceptualism is–but a way in which the eye and, by implication, the mind and heart, remain open to it. This is why drawing remains the primary foundation of art. This is why Giacometti’s failures are anything but and why Mondrian felt the need to add some boogie-woogie to his geometry. Drawing from life has been a precondition of art since Day One. There is no reason for it to be otherwise today.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Max Beckmann at The Neue Galerie

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With Horn (1938), oil on canvas, 43-1/2″ x 39-3/4″; courtesy The Neue Galerie

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Felix Nussbaum’s Self in Concentration Camp (1940), a painting included in the exhibition Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait With Horn at the Neue Galerie, is as bleak as the title implies. Wearing a wool cap, a tattered jacket and a lean beard, the artist looks askance with steely distrust. In the background, a figure defecates into a large metal can. There’s barbed wire, a sky the color of steel wool and an air of Boschian portent.

Bosch’s hell couldn’t compare with Hitler’s. While studying in Rome, Nussbaum, a German Jew, heard Hitler’s minister of propaganda advocate for the Nazi ideal of art; Nussbaum realized soon enough that neither he nor his paintings fit the standard. Nussbaum spent the majority of the war in hiding, continuing to paint, and ultimately died in Auschwitz at the age of 39. Self in Concentration Camp has the awful clarity of a foregone conclusion.

Nussbaum’s painting is diverting enough to make one curious as to what else he did. It’s included in the Neue Galerie exhibition to provide a sense of social and artistic context. There are paintings, drawings and prints—all portraits—by other Beckmann contemporaries as well, but none can equal the brooding power of Self-Portrait with Horn, not even the magisterially detached Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain (1923) by the man himself. As for the rest: Heinrich Hoerle, Georg Scholz, Ludwig Meidner, Otto Dix and George Grosz are little more than historical wallpaper. Beckmann thunders through the gallery.

Beckmann (1884-1950) achieved early success; a self-portrait of the time depicts an unctuous talent with a glib hand for self-aggrandizement.

The First World War put an end to Beckmann the Dandy. He suffered a nervous collapse while serving as a medical orderly on the Belgian front. The paintings that followed his recovery were cramped and muscular dioramas rife with bizarre symbols and occluded narratives. Amalgams of the city, the torture chamber, the Garden of Eden, the circus and the King’s tribunal, Beckmann’s world held an unsparing mirror to the horrors and absurdities of the 20th century.

Beckmann kept a skeptical distance from Modernism—the past weighed too heavily for him to fully embrace radical innovation—but that’s not to say he wasn’t interested. Certainly, Beckmann took inspiration from Matisse’s subtle elisions of color and line. But mostly he was stubbornly independent.

Beckmann lumbered through history, fascinated with the eternal ubiquity of humankind’s foibles, illusions and cruelties. Myth haunted his art, as did a florid sense of purpose: Each person must go through life with the knowledge of, as Beckmann put it, “the murder everyone commits … [Y]ou can never rid yourself of your past, you must carry the corpse along, and Life beats the drum.”

Beckmann was modern enough for the Nazis to peg him as degenerate. Over 20 of his paintings were included in “Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art),” the infamous 1937 exhibition mounted expressly to ridicule modern “Jewish” and “Bolshevik” art. A self-described “good German,” Beckmann was bewildered by the rise of National Socialism and conflicted about leaving his home country. But on the opening night of “Entarte Kunst,” he and his wife, Quappi, took a train to Amsterdam, where they would live in exile for the next 10 years. It was there that Beckmann painted Self Portrait with Horn.

We see Beckmann from the waist up, standing slightly off center. He wears an orange and black patterned robe. His right hand reaches up tentatively. His left grasps a white horn. To the right is a red and black bar—a curtain, maybe, or a canvas—that puts us at a distinct remove. A mirror frames his grand pate. Beckmann’s mouth is set with grim determination. His expression is a mix of suspicion, fear and curiosity. Rarely has isolation been rendered as airless and monumental.

The horn is a recurring motif in Beckmann’s art, and its symbolic import is clear even as its meaning is elusive. Writing in the catalog, art historian Jill Lloyd chases down associations and comes up with a provocatively inclusive jumble. There’s sex, of course—Jung is dragged in for a passing reflection on the horn as both a penetrating object and a receptacle—but also memento mori, a Courbet hunting scene, an instrument to summon “conscience and attention,” a gramophone, a clown’s prop and, oh yes, music.

The most disconcerting thing about Self-Portrait with Horn is its silence.Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation. There’s something fast and mean in how the red and black drape obscures it. Beckmann admired the Courbet painting for its “beautiful clear triumph.” Whatever triumph exists in the stunted space in which the artist and the horn are imprisoned has been rendered moot. It’s a harsh and lonely picture.

Ms. Lloyd likens the Beckmann self-portrait to those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. The German’s vision was too wide-ranging to settle for Vincent’s narrow self-involvement. Though less charitable than Rembrandt, Beckmann was equally honest, introspective and incisive. The 300 year or so gap between Rembrandt and Beckmann is virtually extinguished by shared conviction, authority and moral truth. What would an exhibition exploring their commonalities reveal? The Neue Galerie could do worse than attempt an answer.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.