A self-portrait by Max Beckmann, called “The Liberated Man,” shows him escaping his chains as a door opens to let glaring yellow light into his cell.
The lurid gleam illuminates the green-tinged pallor of his haggard, careworn face. Beyond the barred window is only darkness. Painted in 1937 after Beckmann fled Frankfurt for Amsterdam, it’s clear this new freedom is unreliable, even illusory. Beckmann, condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis, didn’t feel safe in exile in the occupied Netherlands.
Ten years later, leaving Europe for the U.S., Beckmann experienced a true escape, from war, misery and isolation to a new world he had long dreamed of, comparatively unburdened by past horrors. He first taught in St. Louis and later went to New York, where he lived until his death.
It was a productive three years, as an exhibition at the Frankfurt Staedel Museum reveals. “Beckmann & Amerika” is well worth catching before it ends on Jan. 8, 2012. It’s one of three major Beckmann shows in Europe this year: Basel’s Kunstmuseum is showing his landscapes, while Leipzig’s Museum der Bildenden Kuenste is displaying his portraits (both through Jan. 22.)
Beckmann was established as one of the great artists of the era by the time he got to the U.S. His position has since become even more deeply entrenched. The Staedel -- Beckmann lived in Frankfurt for 20 years and taught at the Staedel art school -- has devoted an entire room to the artist in its newly fitted permanent exhibition of modern art.
In those years in America, Beckmann painted mythological themes, still lifes, some landscapes, interiors and portraits. He documented new experiences and friendships, yet his work is haunted by the past and his dreams. It’s laced with idiosyncratic symbols like fish and exotic birds.
The freshness, even innocence, that Beckmann found in the U.S. shows in the portraits of new friends with wholesome, optimistic faces. Perry T. Rathbone, the director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, radiates openness and vigor. The pose of gangling Walter Barker, a student and assistant of the artist, is one of carefree languor and awkward youthful grace.
Beckmann embraced his new life. Yet a European darkness weighs heavily -- in the bold black lines of a window frame dividing a landscape; in the blood spurting from the neck of a decapitated gorgon; in a vampire’s deadly kiss.
It also lurks in the troubled, closed faces of fellow Europeans who appear sporadically, like ghosts at a party. In a 1946 portrait, Beckmann’s New York dealer Curt Valentin is depicted with a furrowed brow and gaunt cheeks, shifty eyes and grimly set lips. He looks conspiratorial. Like Beckmann, he has seen a lot of the world and learned to protect himself from it.
There are memories, too -- the triptych “Beginnings” is a personal compendium of defining childhood influences -- an organ grinder, an upside-down Puss in Boots, a globe showing America and an art-loving uncle.
Some of Beckmann’s finest works are these huge, complex triptychs painted in his final years. He died in 1950, collapsing from a heart attack while walking near Central Park on his way to an exhibition.
“Argonauts” came to him in a dream and was completed the day before he died. Evoking the themes of art and music with a centerpiece suggesting the start of an adventure, it’s an optimistic self-epitaph.
“Beckmann & Amerika” is at the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt through Jan. 8, 2012. Information: http://www.staedelmuseum.de.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)