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Max Beckmann - The Watercolors and Pastels
Max Beckmann, Brother and Sister, 1933. Watercolor and coal on hand-made paper. 65 x 50,5 cm. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006.

FRANKFURT, GERMANY.- Since Max Beckmann’s outstanding artistic production has been highlighted in numerous important exhibitions in recent decades, it is all the more astonishing that Beckmann has yet to be assessed as a “painter on paper.” The Schirn presents more than a hundred watercolors and pastels, some of which are large formats, that offer the first opportunity to view together essential aspects of works that have been dispersed throughout the world. This major survey, on the occasion of which Mayen Beckmann, Siegfried Gohr, and the Schirn will publish the first catalogue raisonné of Beckmann’s watercolors and pastels, will show how important these works in a technique often described as ephemeral were for the artist. In contrast to the paintings, in which the problems of history and human existence are condensed, the watercolors give evidence of the artist’s humor, legerity, and charming spontaneity, revealing a facet of this great master of modernism that has been little appreciated.

In parallel to the exhibition in the Schirn, Beckmann’s earliest prints from the Städel’s Collection of Graphic Works will be presented at the Städel from 4 March to 11 June 2006. The MMK will confront Max Beckmann’s “Apocalypse” with new works by Thomas Demand from 24 March to 27 August 2006. The Städel and the Schirn will organize a symposium under the title “Was ich will, wird erst am Ende meines Schaffens deutlich werden, als Ganzes gesehen” (“What I want will only become clear at the end of my work, seen as a whole”), in the Metzler Hall of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut from 10.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. on 6 May 2006.

The exhibition “Max Beckmann. The Watercolors and Pastels” is made possible by “Deutsche Bank Stiftung.”

Max Hollein, Director of the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt: “With its presentation of Max Beckmann’s watercolors and pastels, the Schirn continues a series of exhibitions that has focused on secondary strands or work complexes by established classic modernist masters such as Henri Matisse’s cut-outs or Paul Klee’s works from 1933 to which only little attention has been paid to date. The catalogue raisonné of works in color on paper, published to accompany the exhibition, will represent an essential contribution to the literature on Beckmann’s oeuvre.”

Mayen Beckmann and Siegfried Gohr, curators of the exhibition and authors of the catalogue raisonné: “The preparation of the catalogue raisonné of Beckmann’s works on paper that has continued for more than ten years has shown that these pieces do not complement or paraphrase the artist’s paintings but frequently herald something new. Here, the painter steps backs, and we come upon an artist who works with a certain lightness, admits humor, and knows how to give himself over to the charm of the moment. Thus, the picture of an artist suffering from the problems of history and human existence wins surprising new facets; last, not least, Beckmann’s works on paper illustrate the artist’s stupendous technical mastery in an especially impressive manner.”

Drawing on contemporary history, mythology, and his personal biography, Max Beckmann (1884 Leipzig – 1950 New York) created an oeuvre that numbers amongst the most outstanding creative iconographic achievements of modern art. Yet, it was not before 1980 that the recognition of his work began to give way to today’s great renown. Recent retrospectives in New York, Zurich, or Paris have aroused a new interest in Beckmann’s work and placed it on a par with the work of Picasso, Matisse, and Léger not least in America too.

Max Beckmann has made paintings and drawings, but not continuously produced watercolors and pastels in all phases of his career as an artist. In his early years until 1914, nearly all artistic energies went into painting. He turned his terrible wartime experiences – Beckmann had volunteered for the medical service in 1915 and been granted leave from military service after suffering a nervous breakdown before he was discharged – into drawings and etchings almost without exception. Haunted by his memories, Beckmann underwent a radical stylistic change towards an expressive art in which deformation and uncertainty became directly manifest in the artist’s technique and means of representation such as breaking up the pictorial space and the central perspective, fragmentation, and violently colliding expressive lines. For digesting the incidents witnessed in the inferno of the war, Beckmann frequently relied on Christian subjects like in the series of five gouaches dating from 1918 which deal with the story of the “Prodigal Son.”

These threatening years and their expression in works informed by violence, chaos, and hopelessness were followed by another fundamental change taking shape from the 1920s on. Beckmann, who had settled in Frankfurt in 1917, now began to look for his place in the bourgeois world. From 1925 until his dismissal by the Nazis in 1933, he held a professorship at the Städelschule and played an important role in the cultural life of the Weimar Republic. His personal consolidation manifested itself in both the choice of his subjects and in his means of representation. Somber accusations with polemical leanings were replaced by portraits, still lifes, bathers, female nudes, and other motifs: “a life simply there” (Beckmann). Yet, instead of naked violence, Beckmann now also fathomed the double standards of the “salons,” the masquerades and role plays, as well as man’s isolation as a pressing problem of society.

Until the mid-1920s, works on paper in color remained an exception to the rule though and thus cannot be regarded as a work group with a weight of its own besides the artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints. The number of such works began to increase only in the late 1920s, and their layout resembled that of large-format pictures. In pastels such as “Meeting in the Night” (1928), Beckmann tried a new tack by contenting himself with only a few figures and having plastic bodies with concise contours dominate the pictorial surface – an approach which would become important especially for his triptychs. “Departure,” Beckmann’s first triptych from 1932/33, marks a decisive turning-point in the artist’s work in its immersion into the world of the myth. From an observer keeping his critical distance

from a society falling apart, Beckmann turned into an artist who tried to make his escape by means of mythological disguise but also relied on mythology in order to be able to consider the world from a wider historical and thematic perspective. Picture-like watercolors such as “Ulysses (Ulysses and Siren),” “The Rape of Europa,” and “Brother and Sister” from 1933 constitute a first acme of Beckmann’s watercolor art. The watercolors of 1933 reveal a new approach to color which Beckmann now used as an element with inherent powers the painter no longer suppressed like in his previous works but welcomed rather. In the thirties and forties, watercolors sometimes provided the artist with a possibility to unwind from his work on the complicated triptychs that was fraught with thoughts when Bavarian landscapes, North Sea beach scenes, still lifes, or private portraits were chosen as subjects, for example. On the other hand, the comparably spontaneous watercolor technique fuelled an iconographic pleasure in experiments which brought about unusual pictorial solutions even for Beckmann. The pen-and-ink drawings inspired by Goethe’s “Faust II” were followed by works revealing complicated combinations of pen-and-ink, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, etc. in his Amsterdam exile after 1945 and especially in his Americ

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