MAX BECKMANN: Not So Still Life

Autor: Ryan Gresham. You’re likely to spot something familiar staring at a Max Beckmann. You might, for instance, catch something like Braque’s facets slicing through one of Beckmann’s more drearily hued canvases, giving it that otherworldly look of a church’s stained glass on an overcast day. Or maybe one of Gaugin’s reclining Polynesians seems to peek out at you from behind what could be a palm frond every now and then. Beckmann even packs some of his stuff with enough writhing, elongated bodies in washed-out tones to give them that haunted feel of an El Greco, minus the juicy, religious melodrama. Despite his noted railings against peers and predecessors, Beckmann’s influences are usually tough to miss.

And then there are the famous self-portraits – nearly a hundred in all – with many sporting a dour expression as steely and businesslike as those found in commissioned oil paintings of turn-of-the-century American corporate magnates – a no-nonsense aesthetic that, in fact, the anti-romantic Neue Sachlichkeit movement (which Beckmann was grudgingly linked to) paid homage to.

Which brings us to Beckmann’s still lifes. What about them? Are they just derivative takes on that most fruitful of artistic staples? Do they warrant the wattage of a full exhibition? The Hamburger Kunsthalle has kindly trotted out a nice selection to help you make up your mind. And while many pieces might not, upon first perusal, seem to offer the same aesthetic intrigues as Beckmann’s other work: Keep looking.

In any potent still life, dull objects yield a hidden, animated existence under the artist’s careful examination. And in Beckmann’s case, this gaze (yes: cast upon fruit, fish, and pipes, among the usual suspects) routinely unearths that special brand of cataclysmic turbulence big in the West near the opening of the 20th century. It’s as if, traumatized by an apocalyptic cynicism – born of witnessing two world wars and the crumbling of the Weimar Republic; being branded a “degenerate artist” by Hitler; fleeing first Germany for The Netherlands and later Europe for America – Beckmann flipped on its head the favorite form of his beloved Cezanne by sandblasting it free of any romantic veneer – ditching any hint of a calming, ethereal sfumato – and rendered his subjects as if under the harsh glare of a military spotlight. Life, sure; but “still” is certainly the wrong word for these.

You’ll spot a lot looking at any Max Beckmann. And if you stare well enough at some of his still lifes, you’ll find more than just a bloodless homage to the form: You’ll catch plenty of the jaded artist himself, as well as his scary time and place – and probably more than a bit of yourself.

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Max Beckmann. The Still Lifes
Hamburger Kunsthalle
5 September 2014 – 18 January 2015

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