On the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum, past the Greco-Roman relics and on your way into European sculptures, is the airy but contained gallery housing Max Beckmann in New York through February of next year. Compact, light, and unassuming, the show is rather excellent: the wall text adequate and not too imposing, the paintings both palatable and intense. It is exactly the kind of exhibition that is easy to digest and worth digesting. The history behind it is simple: Beckmann, typically classified as a German Expressionist, resided in New York from 1949 through his death in 1950, having originally fled to Holland from his native country under Hitler’s regime. Fourteen of the 39 pieces were created in this brief interlude, while the 25 others are earlier works from New York collections. The paintings’ subjects are the artist himself; various interiors and landscapes; nightlife spectacles; voluptuous figures, mostly female; artists or performers; and strange, chimerical scenes. Common devices include Beckmann’s trademark broad, black strokes, strong color pairings, and emphasis on large, jointed body parts, especially the hands.
I find his self-portraits, which open the show and adorn much of its paraphernalia, particularly compelling. They are dark, ruminative, introspective, brooding; one wonders, though, whether Beckmann is angry or apathetic, merely irritated, somehow plagued? In his NY Times review, Ken Johnson does not hesitate to give primarily the more inventive works (i.e. not from life) their Holocaustal connotation: Bird’s Hell (1938) “so vividly captures the sociopathic ferocity of Nazism,” such that it is painful to study, while the massive triptych Departure (1932, 1933-35) “renders the horror of Germany in the 1930s as a kind of Shakespearean tableau,” cementing its legacy as “one of the saddest paintings in the history of modern art.” Yet by fixing on himself (and later, a whole host of posing women trapped in a casual stasis), Beckmann is precluded from– and immunized against– this forgivable strain of contextualizing Johnson has adopted, instead asking you to only consider what’s actually in the pieces (rather than turn to the past, the curators erroneously hail the prescience of the works, arguing that Icarus-referencing Falling Man somehow anticipated the tragedies of 9/11). And it’s not as if they are without all the allegorical strangeness of Bird’s Hell, Departure, or the amazing Falling Man: note the twisted instrument pushing out and rightward in Self Portrait with Horn, Truman Capote flavor of Self Portrait in Front of Red Curtain, and ballooning overcoat of Self Portrait in Blue Jacket.
Beckmann often depicts his own squat, stocky physiognomy in such a grotesque way that you accept it as honest. With his neck sinking into a fat, heaving chest as his squeezed forehead meets a hefty, striking nose, only thin cigarettes and angular shoulders help to offset Beckmann’s ugly bulk. The artist showcases in these paintings the melancholy of existing, and whether or not these undertones were informed by Beckmann’s encounters with suffering, it’s easy to understand why Johnson would pick up on the subjectivity and darkness at their core.
It’s hard to cherry-pick which small details enable each work’s achievement of an unlikely wholeness, a sense of unity despite frequently combative tones and awkward limb placement. Sometimes the subtle, careful shadows truly make the difference; often, the culprits might be tangerine outlines; blocks of white; partially unmasked layers; or thinned, ragged edges. There is also what many might recognize as Cubism mixed in, and, like other pieces, Vaudeville Act (Quappi), of his second wife, is highly reminiscent of Picasso in casting her as a harlequin-type. Its vivacity and charm are echoed throughout the show by a range of wonderful, brilliant paintings the Met is fortunate to present and we to receive.
Through February 20th.