April 4 (Bloomberg) -- Pablo Picasso, famous for his love life, put women at the center of his painting, interpreting the world through them and using them to project his erotic desires.
Max Beckmann, devoted to his improbably named second wife Quappi, put women on a pedestal and drew strength from their self-assurance. Willem de Kooning, with two tempestuous long-term relationships in his life, knowingly ran the risk of being deemed misogynistic with his wild, joyful, sometimes comically grotesque creatures merged into brightly colored landscapes.
An exhibition titled “Frauen” at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne, the most expensive the museum has ever mounted, brings together a spectacular array of paintings of women by the three artists for a thoughtful show.
If it’s not a complete success, that’s because De Kooning’s paintings stand apart from the others. The conversation between the works of Beckmann and Picasso is lively -- sometimes they concur, sometimes they contradict each other.
De Kooning doesn’t join the debate and seems to be talking about something else altogether. The curators may have thought that too: Whereas Picasso and Beckmann often hang side by side, De Kooning’s works are mostly together, away from the others.
Beckmann’s “Quappi in Blau und Grau” shows his slim, elegant brunette wife standing in front of a vase of flowers, tapered fingers with painted nails loosely holding a letter. She is a picture of cool self-containment.
Quappi is perfect next to Picasso’s 1941 portrait of Dora Maar, “Femme assise au fauteuil” (Woman Sitting in an Armchair). Also dressed in sedate dark blue, Maar’s upright torso is framed by the carved dark wood of the chair. With a hat and a neat white blouse, she is as elegant as Quappi. Yet this portrait was painted during the World War II German occupation of Paris and there is fear in her wide open eyes with their red pupils and the tangled jumble of hands in her lap.
Mathilde von Kaulbach -- Quappi was her nickname -- may be one of the most-portrayed women in the history of art. Twenty years younger than Beckmann, she gave up a career as an opera singer to marry him. She emits a cool sensuality, an unassailability, in his paintings. Even in a swimsuit perched on the side of a boat, hand on hip, she looks in control.
Beckmann did paint women in distress, or a state of erotic excitement, yet not his wife. Perhaps he had too much respect for her?
Take his blonde “Frau mit Mandoline in Gelb und Rot” (Woman With Mandolin in Yellow and Red), who is clearly not Quappi. It alludes to the Greek myth of Leda, impregnated by Zeus in the shape of a swan. The mandolin handle stands in for the swan: The woman’s breasts are bared to her attacker yet her face and eyes are turned away.
Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, was his preferred model in the last part of his life. Forty-six years his junior, he painted her lying on her side, teasing a kitten, balanced on her hip, with a feather. Looming over the image is the shadow of the artist.
The most shocking work is Picasso’s 1965 “La pisseuse,” showing a woman squatting on a beach, a stream of liquid from her hairy genitals clearly visible. I wondered if it is more provocative today, in an era when sanitized glamour dominates our public image of womanhood, than it was then.
It is perhaps in this work that Picasso comes closest to De Kooning’s untamed women, shown in fleshy pinks and sometimes only discernible through a clompy high heel or a luscious mouth. A sense of movement, light and natural joy is what surfaces in these almost-abstract paintings with their feminine colors.
De Kooning said that his paintings of women might be paintings of himself, and this is where his contribution to the discourse seems to drift off at a tangent. His pictures are about painting and about the artist -- women are incidental.
The exhibition runs through July 15. For more information, go to http://www.pinakothek.de/
Duchamp in Munich
Before he started putting bicycle wheels and urinals on display and revolutionizing art history, Marcel Duchamp visited Munich. It was a century ago, and he was in a huff with Paris after his masterpiece painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2,” was rejected by the Salon des Independants.
Munich, he later said, “was the scene of my complete liberation.” He stayed for almost three months, drawing inspiration from Lucas Cranach, Wassily Kandinsky and the technical wizardry on display at the Deutsches Museum. He hit the town with his friend the painter Max Bergmann and chased hopelessly after the wife of another friend.
An exhibition in Munich’s dingy Kunstbau explores Duchamp’s time in the city, bringing together three of his best-known pictures, produced at that time.
At the center is the rejected painting. To one side of it hangs “The Virgin’s Passage to Bride” and to the other, “Bride.” Mechanical elements that recall dissected engines feature in both these latter, Cubist works.
Duchamp was only to produce four more paintings before turning away from paint as a medium.
The show also runs through July 15. For more information, see http://www.lenbachhaus.de/
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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