Tag Archives: The Neue Galerie

“Richard Gerstl” at The Neue Galerie

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait, Laughing (1907), oil on canvas; courtesy Belvedere, Vienna

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It’s going to happen, trust me: Gerstl: The Movie. How could it not? Within a few minutes of walking into “Richard Gerstl,” museum-goers—at least, those who read the wall labels—could be heard tut-tutting over the artist’s short and scandalous life. Though Gerstl’s reputation doesn’t extend much beyond his native Austria, the biographical particulars are universal in prurient appeal. Imagine: a precocious talent comes of age in a milieu charged with innovation, a society in which cultural, political, and moral norms have been called into question. Genius abounds, as does love between parties which are otherwise involved. Mix in psychological instability, illicit sex, marital abandonment, broken hearts, and an early death, and you’ve got the makings of a great story. A tragic life shouldn’t be trivialized, but Gerstl’s tale is remarkable not only for its drama, but for the significant figures it touches upon, notably the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Then there are the paintings. If the oeuvre is slim for the cruelest of reasons—Gerstl, who was born in 1883, died by his own hand at age twenty-five—it is marked by moments of thrilling lucidity. “Richard Gerstl” is a superb exhibition.

For those of us who have had our curiosity piqued by Portrait of a Man (Green Background) (1908), a painting regularly on display at Neue Galerie, or the stray Gerstl canvas seen here and there, “Richard Gerstl” is a welcome event. Curated by Jill Lloyd, a specialist in Expressionist art, and organized in conjunction with the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, this is the first Gerstl retrospective mounted in the United States. It includes about half of ninety extant pictures, and provides a solid, if frustrating, overview. Whether due to the unavailability of certain pieces or because of space limitations at Neue Galerie, “Richard Gerstl” is skimpier than one would like. (The catalogue provides a more thorough accounting.) Gerstl’s trajectory should be familiar territory to anyone conversant with how an ambitious artist might pursue “entirely new paths” at the turn of the twentieth century. After establishing himself as an adept practitioner of academic painting, Gerstl discovered, and was energized by, a handful of artists out to buck the status quo. How directly familiar he was with Edvard Munch or the Swiss symbolist Ferdinand Hodler is unknown, but the aesthetic turf they shared is clear. More certain is the influence of Vincent van Gogh and Edouard Vuillard, particularly in how each painter animated the pictorial surface with lessons gleaned from Pointillism.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait (1908), oil on canvas; courtesy Leopold Museum/Neue Galerie

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As a means of providing context, The Neue Galerie juxtaposes Gerstl’s pictures with those of fellow countrymen Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as the American William Clarke Rice. The latter is included for his portrait of the twenty-four- year-old Gerst, whom Rice met while on holiday in Austria. Portrait of Richard Gerstl (1907) captures a sharp and lively intelligence, and serves as a counterpoint, as well as a corrective, to Gerstl’s self-portraits, of which there are many. Chalk it up to youthful arrogance or the limitations of Expressionism, but Gerstl’s self-portraits can be a bit much. The earliest is Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902–04), wherein the lanky painter, partially draped in a white robe, surrounds himself with divine light. In the last self-portrait, from 1908, religious portent is jettisoned, as well as any remaining clothing, for an unseemly mediation on the flesh. In between Gerstl relishes his good looks, radiates moody introspection, immerses himself in a flurry of minty blue, and embodies madness in Self-Portrait Laughing (1907), an over-the-top image that makes Van Gogh seem like Winnie the Pooh. All are marked by heady self-infatuation and, at crucial moments, self-loathing. If these are the pictures of an unapologetic narcissist, they also favor painting over pure expression. As unsavory as we might find Gerstl as a type, his love of oil paint is patent. Gerstl’s bravura is never unearned.

Born in Vienna to wealthy parents, Gerstl showed artistic promise early on, eventually going on to study at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. (He preceded another Academy pupil, Egon Schiele, by eight years.) During the summer of 1900, Gerstl attended the Nagybanya artist’s colony, where the Hungarian painter Simon Hollosy introduced him to Impressionism. A taste of radical art soured Gerstl on the conservatism advocated at the Academy, and he quit his studies—not once, but twice. Gerstl bristled easily, and didn’t suffer authority figures gladly or to his benefit: Gerstl refused an opportunity to show at the vanguardist Galerie Miethke when he discovered that the proposed exhibition would also include Klimt, whom Gerstl dismissed as a “society operator.” In 1906, Schoenberg hired Gerstl to provide private lessons in painting, and the young artist was subsequently welcomed into the “Schoenberg Circle,” an exclusive and close-knit company of musicians, composers, and historians. Gerstl grew closest to Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde—too close. Their relationship proved disastrous. The abortive affair resulted in Gerstl’s expulsion from a nurturing social environment and prompted his messy suicide. Hanging wasn’t enough for Gerstl; stabbing was involved, as was the burning of papers and artwork. A posthumous declaration of insanity, requested by the Gerstl family, allowed for a Christian burial.

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Richard Gerstl, The Schönberg Family (1908), oil on canvas; courtesy Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien/Gift of the Kamm Family, Zug 1969

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It’s not entirely coincidental that the two strongest paintings in “Richard Gerstl”— masterpieces, out-and-out—center on the Schoenberg family. Wax as one might about the expressive possibilities of paint, words fall short in describing the coarse, hyperbolic power of The Schoenberg Family and Half-Portrait of Mathilde Schoenberg (both 1908). At the time, these pictures must have seemed reckless bordering on inchoate; today, they are no less shocking. In the group portrait, Gerstl conjures up Arnold, Mathilde, and their children Trudi and Gorgi, with a lava-like slathering of acidic yellows, sharp greens, and a deceivingly placid pink. Gerstl’s portrayal of his inamorata is wilder and weirder, going in-and-out of focus with keening, off-kilter rhythms, and pitiless attention paid to likeness. Neither painting is devoid of humor; both are harsh and hypnotic. Pity Schoenberg, the amateur dauber: the pictures of his included at Neue Galerie barely register as trifles compared to Gerstl’s furied images. Then again, the attendant pictures by Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka come off as pretty mild as well. Six years—that’s all the time Gerstl allowed himself to pursue his art. Does a place in history serve as recompense for a life of confusion and pain? “Richard Gerstl” provides a riveting opportunity to mull that sad and sobering question.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the September 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

“Alexei Jawlensky” at The Neue Galerie

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Alexei Jawlensky, Portrait of Marie Castell (1906), oil on board, 21 x 19-1/2″; courtesy of The Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jerome O. Eddy

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Among the initial observations prompted by “Alexei Jawlensky” at the Neue Gallery—the first U.S. retrospective devoted to the Russian-born Expressionist—is that Jawlensky was a better Van Gogh than Van Gogh himself. Toward the beginning of the exhibition, viewers encounter Portrait of Marie Castell (1906), a canvas that could be mistaken for the real thing. The thickly applied brushstrokes, acidic colors, stiffly rendered contours, flattened composition, and prole-ish character of Castell— poor Vincent couldn’t have done as well. And, in significant ways, he didn’t. Sure, Jawlensky followed on the heels of Post-Impressionism; pictorial tics that were revolutionary ten to fifteen years earlier were, if not outmoded, then accepted by advanced painters. Still, it’s worth noting how adept Jawlensky is at navigating space, delineating anatomy, and bringing variety to the picture’s facture and chromatic range. Talk all you want about how Van Gogh’s ham-handedness connotes passion and commitment—he rarely achieved the virtuosity, the light and electricity, of Portrait of Marie Castell. That, and Castell looks at us with a degree of self-possession. Van Gogh smothered sitters with an overheated temperament—his own. For Jawlensky, “heat” was an option, not the sine qua non. So much so that the “Expressionist” tag seems misapplied over the course of the oeuvre.

“Alexei Jawlensky” spotlights a talented stylist of limited scope. Organized by Vivian Endicott Barnett, a curator specializing in German and Russian Modernism, the Neue Galerie exhibition gives Jawlensky (1863–1941) due diligence without having him overstay his welcome. Born in Torzhok, a town located in the province of Tver, Jawlensky was an eighteen-year-old cadet in the Imperial Russian Army when he underwent a transformative experience, discovering his true vocation upon encountering the painting section of the Moscow World Exposition. Strings were pulled—possibly by his father, a colonel—and Jawlensky was re-stationed in St. Petersburg; there he pursued art while fulfilling his military duties. Jawlensky studied with Ilya Repin, the most renowned of nineteenth-century Russian painters, and it was within Repin’s circle that he met, and became involved with, fellow artist Marianne van Werefkin. Feeling stifled by the brand of realism extolled by Repin, Jawlensky and Van Werefkind moved to Munich in search of more progressive environs. Once there, they befriended Wassily Kandinsky, and made the requisite trip to Paris, where Jawlensky became acquainted with the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, and, yes, Van Gogh.Jawlensky 2.jpg

Alexei Jawlensky, Oberstdorf-Mountains (1912), oil on cardboard, 19-1/2 x 22-1/2″; courtesy Petr Aven Collection

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Jawlensky’s claim on history is guaranteed by his being a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of like-minds without whom Expressionism is inconceivable. Alongside Van Werefkin, Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Gabriele Munter, and August Macke, Jawlensky sought to embody transcendentalist aims through painterly means, following upon Kandinsky’s dictum that the “beautiful . . . . springs from inner need, which springs from the soul.” One sees this most keenly in a group of mask-like faces Jawlensky painted during the Teens, in which minutely tuned gradations of chroma and light are draped upon compositions reminiscent of Byzantine icons. Though Jawlensky tilted towards abstraction, he never completely abandoned representation. The splotchy landscapes displayed at the center of the exhibition test the limits of recognizability even as Jawlensky continues to hold onto things—hillocks and trees, clouds and sky. Jawlensky’s debt to Kandinsky is patent, particularly in the jewel-like colors and brusque application of oils. Too much of a debt, perhaps. Strolling through “Alexei Jawlensky,” other painters are recalled so vividly that one can’t help but wonder how Jawlensky’s pictures would hold up in the company of his Blaue Reiter colleagues or simpatico figures like Marsden Hartley, Paul Klee, and Robert Delaunay.

The show-stoppers in “Alexei Jawlensky” are few, but the exhibition never truly lags. New Yorkers may recognize Helene with Colored Turban (1920) on loan from the Guggenheim, a Matissean play of fulsome shapes and smoky reds held in check by a sweeping neutral green. Oberstdorf-Mountains (1912), with its bulky outlines, fatty slurs of paint and glowing color, threatens to muscle its way out of the canvas. The portion of the show titled “Working in Series” puts into focus what is, aesthetically if not chronologically, the culmination of Jawlensky’s art. These paintings of faces aren’t portraits in the traditional sense, but are structural armatures—often mannered and, at their best, highly streamlined. Early examples like The Old Man (Yellow Beard) (1912) and Byzantine Woman (Bright Lips) (1913) have their gruff charms, but they rehash, rather than vitalize, the verities of Expressionism; they’re period pieces of a generic sort. The line-up of “mystical” heads fares better because they break free of the particulars of anatomy, settling for ideograms of the human face. “Settling,” however, is the problem. It didn’t occur to Jawlensky that a composition could be made as variable as the colors that prompted him to put brush to canvas in the first place.

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Alexei Jawlensky, Meditation: My Spirit Will Live On (1935), oil on cardboard, 7-7/8 x 5-7/8″; courtesy Museum Wiesbaden

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The exhibition concludes with an artist who has been vilified as “degenerate” by the Third Reich, and suffers from an arthritis that would ultimately still his art. The paintings become smaller, distilled, and clouded—pointing to a loss of manual dexterity, and likely indicative of a hostile political climate. In the intimate final gallery, viewers encounter the “meditation” pictures, images that further reduce the portrait schemata to what are, essentially, cruciforms; not a few observers have likened their back-lit surfaces and linear scaffolding to stained glass windows. Learning that Jawlensky guided his brush using crippled hands can’t help but put pause to criticism; all the same, it’s a mercy that Orenstein culled only a handful from a series that numbers close to a thousand. Variety and invention were not Jawlensky’s strong suits. And neither, in the end, was Modernism. The picture that lingers most vividly in the memory is Helene at the Age of Fifteen (1900), the earliest canvas on display and the most fluent, haunting, and conservative. Its fetching slurs of ochre, umber, and dusty pink coalesce in a manner that shows up Jawlensky’s “advanced” pictures as brittle exercises in form. Not everything the avant-garde alighted upon turned to gold—the upshot, however inadvertent, of “Alexei Jawlensky.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the May 2017 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.

“Munch and Expressionism” at The Neue Galerie, New York

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Edvard Munch, The Scream (1895), pastel and board on the original frame; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Is there any pocket of culture that isn’t conversant with, if not the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) himself, then his signature canvas The Scream? Few images have filtered through the popular imagination with as much persistence. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and Alberto Gorda’s photograph of Che Guevara, Munch’s paean to psychological distress has been honored, quoted, and parodied; it’s proven infinitely parrot-able. Here in the twenty-first century, The Scream has been co-opted by the digital zeitgeist: those who send bad news electronically can do so with an emoji dubbed “Face Screaming in Fear.” Given the contemporary prevalence of Munch’s image, it comes as a surprise to learn that The Scream didn’t have the same currency during the artist’s lifetime. In a radio interview, Jill Lloyd, the co-curator with Reinhold Heller of “Munch and Expressionism,” stated that our reigning emblem of hellish anxiety didn’t gain traction until after Munch’s death. That The Scream continues to resonate with audiences says much about the primal emotions it embodies.

Munch did four variations of The Scream, as well as a suite of prints; the best known of these, an oil on canvas from 1893, is the star attraction of The National Gallery in Oslo. That painting, it should be noted, is not on view at The Neue Galerie. The version of The Scream squirreled away in a side gallery of “Munch and Expressionism” was done in pastel two years later and is more stylized and less discordant. It is, in so many words, fairly underwhelming, but it does serve, albeit inadvertently, a curatorial purpose: to place Munch in a historical context that extends beyond a single iconographic picture. In the catalogue, Lloyd states that while Vincent Van Gogh “is justly deemed a precursor or ‘father’ of Expressionism, Munch, by contrast, inspired and participated in the movement.” Munch’s notoriety in Germany helped kick-start Expressionism. An exhibition of his work held at the Verein Berliner Künstler in 1892 garnered the kind of press best measured in column inches, not praise. Roundly drubbed as a “mockery of art,” the show was shuttered before the closing date due to the controversy it generated. Munch was pleased by this turn of events; the scandal was “the best advertisement I could have hoped for.” He subsequently made Germany his home for sixteen years.

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Erich Heckel, Girl with Doll (Fränzi) (1910), oil on canvas; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Playing upon his newfound fame, Munch organized a series of German exhibitions that helped solidify his outré reputation among a local cadre of forward-thinking patrons, critics, and collectors. Munch’s status was codified by the critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who featured him alongside Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Modern Art, a 1904 text that served as a touchstone for the burgeoning Expressionist movement and, especially, the painters of Die Brücke. This group of Dresden-based artists—its members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Emil Nolde—shared “similar yearning[s]” with Munch, and repeatedly invited the older artist to participate in its annual exhibitions. Munch demurred every time. These rebuffs did little to staunch Die Brücke’s admiration, though you can’t help but wonder why Munch held himself apart. Arne Eggum, an art historian and the former director of The Munch Museum, conjectures that Munch had his eye on establishing a reputation in Paris—Dresden being a veritable Podunk in comparison to the City of Light. Munch and the Expressionists wouldn’t be exhibited together in Germany until 1912, at which point the Norwegian had returned to his native land.

“Munch and Expressionism” makes no bones about mixing-and-matching the recalcitrant master with his progeny. Divided into sections according to specific motifs—among them, “Portraits,” “Adolescence,” “Experiments in Printmaking,” and that reliable chestnut “Battle Between the Sexes”—Munch’s art is placed alongside that of Die Brücke, as well as pictures by Egon Schiele, Gabriel Munter, Oskar Kokoschka, and the uncategorizable Max Beckmann. The inevitable comparisons aren’t revelatory—at least, for those conversant with the by-ways of twentieth century art—but they are satisfyingly predictable. Nor do they always favor Munch. In the “Urban Scenes” portion of the show, Munch is overshadowed by Kirchner, whose Street Dresden (1908) retains its punch some hundred years after the fact. Its acidic palette and lava-like rhythms make Munch canvases like Midsummer Night’s Eve (1901–03) and The Book Family (1901) look woefully polite. Admittedly, the exhibition doesn’t include Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), a moody canvas that is a precursor to The Scream and a Munch masterpiece. A lithographic take on Karl Johan Street at The Neue Galerie has much to recommend to it, but even on the attenuated evidence found in “Munch and Expressionism,” it’s clear that Munch was far more innovative as a printmaker than as a painter.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait in Front of a Stove (1907), oil on canvas on board; courtesy of The Neue Galerie, New York

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Truth be told, Munch remained very much a nineteenth-century painter until the end of his life. An inherent parochialism both powered his vision and prevented a full reckoning with Modernism. Post-Impressionism clearly threw him for a loop, and his experiments with its pictorial liberties are ham-handed when they aren’t over-heated. (Lord only knows what he made of Cubism and its offshoots.) The artist we see in pictures like Christian Gierloff (1909), Puberty (1914–16), and Bathing Man (1918) is wildly out of his depth: pictorial space warps-and-woofs with no discernible purpose, the palette turns muddy when it doesn’t chalk out altogether, and the brushwork flails where previously it had snuck up on the images with a brooding, understated sensuality. The post-1900 canvases, even the much-lauded self-portrait The Night Wanderer (1923–24), are enough of a mish-mosh to make a minor figure like Erich Heckel seem a contender. And then there’s the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl, dead by his own hand at the age of twenty-five: his canvases all but steal the spotlight of “Munch and Expressionism.” His was a powerhouse talent and is too little known. The name “Gerstl” may not generate the same buzz or box office as “Munch,” but this is a museum with the means and institutional interest to organize an overview of the work. Who knows? That exhibition may be a revelation.

© 2016 Mario Naves

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

Summer Doldrums

Photo courtesy of Eno Bull

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It’s summer-time, the livin’ is easy and the art critic is lazy. Not altogether lazy–my reviews of exhibitions by Kirk Stoller, Li Songsong and Sigmar Polke will be appearing in next week’s edition of City Arts and, of course, here. But, otherwise, I’d rather spend the next month or two either (a) in the studio or (b) visiting old favorites–minus, that is, the note-taking.

Knowing the blogosphere as the perpetually voracious animal that it is, I thought I’d use the summer months to stock up on the archives and re-visit pieces I haven’t thought about it in years. Here’s one I forgot about altogether, its memory having been usurped by a more thorough investigation of the same topic a year later.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt at The Neue Galerie

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, The Yawner, 1771-83<p> 	b. 1736, Wiesensteig, BavariaFranz Xaver Messerschmidt, The Yawner (1771-83), tin cast, 16-1/2″ x 8-5/8″ x 9-1/2″; courtesy The Neue Galerie

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Loathe as I am to perpetuate the myth that creativity and madness are inherently linked, madness does play a vital part in fueling the unnerving intensity of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “character heads”, subject of an exhibition at The Neue Galerie.

A contemporary of Goya and Fragonard, Messerschmidt (1736-1783) was among Vienna’s most sought after sculptors.  That is, until his erratic behavior–prompted, Messerschmidt claimed, by various spirits–alienated friends, family, colleagues and patrons.  The “Spirit of Proportion” was especially vexing given that Messerschmidt had encroached on its dominion, having divined aspects of proportion previously unknown to humankind.

To fend off the phantoms, Messerschmidt inflicted pain on himself and rendered the ensuing facial expressions in three-dimensions.  But madness wasn’t Messerschmidt’s all: He was a sculptor of taut, streamlined fluidity.  Whether his demons were mastered is open to question, but the mastery evinced in Messerschmidt’s terse and tensile visages is undeniable.

My full review of The Neue Galerie exhibition appeared in the December 2010 edition of The New Criterion.

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.