The Painter That Defined Berlin's Core Identity

Max Beckmann, Selbstbildnis mit Sektglas (Self-portrait with Champagne Glass), 1919. Private collection, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, on long term loan. © VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2015.

Max Beckmann and Berlin at the Berlinische Galerie

Berlin is a city adjusting to transition. At the moment, scaffolding and active construction are ubiquitous in the city's center. The local culture is bracing itself for a long foreseen gentrification and Berliners are appropriately regarding these changes with excitement and trepidation. Their concern is valid since, as Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker, "Cities can't win. When they do well, people resent them as citadels of inequality; when they do badly, they are cesspools of hopelessness."

Max Beckmann, Blick auf den Nollendorfplatz (View of the Nollendorfplatz), 1911. Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. © VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2015.

Gopnik was writing about American cities, specifically Manhattan, but his observation also applies to London, Paris and other examples that Berliners acknowledge as templates for the immediate future. During this era of accelerated change, exhibitions like "Max Beckmann and Berlin," at the Berlinische Galerie, are powerful tools in the city's cultural and social self-exploration. As Berlin navigates its new relationship with the tensions Gopnik identifies, and continues to wrestle with its own uniquely painful twentieth-century past, there is a renewed interest in artists such as Otto Dix, Sylvia von Harden, and Beckmann, who witnessed and represented Berlin's most turbulent times. The insights offered by the Berlinische Galerie retrospective of Beckmann demonstrates Berlin's core identity through its most promising and poisonous periods in recent history.

Max Beckmann, Junge Männer am Meer (Young Men by the Sea), 1905. Klassik Stiftung Weimar, © VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2015. Photo: Renno, Weimar.

Beckmann, who was born in Leipzig in 1884, lived in Berlin from 1904 to 1914 and returned from 1933 to 1937 before fleeing to Amsterdam when Hitler denounced his work as "degenerate." From 1915-1933, he lived in Frankfurt but maintained close ties with Berlin's art scene. The fifty paintings, drawings and prints shown at the Berlinische Galerie were primarily produced in Berlin. The show marks the gallery's fortieth anniversary and features a large number of works from the permanent collection, as well as private collections throughout Germany. They are presented alongside works by Beckmann's contemporaries, friends, and rivals, such as Edvard Munch, Max Liebermann, Franz Marc, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. As a result, the Berlinische Galerie's retrospective asserts that Berlin formed and defined Beckmann and, as one of Germany's most influential twentieth-century artists, his work equally defined Berlin.

Max Beckmann, Die Straße (The Street [part of a large-format street scene that Beckmann cut apart in 1928]), 1914. Berlinische Galerie, © VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2015.

Once Beckmann fully developed his Expressionistic style (a term he disliked but proves unavoidable when describing his art), his paintings realized their full drama and tension. Beckmann's early works are relaxed and vivacious. He considered Berlin as the ultimate modern city and his work reflects his ideal of urban elegance. His paintings created before 1933 represent the cosmopolitan face of young Germany. He was not immune to critical cuts but he was mostly lauded during the Weimar Republic. His work during this period represents the spirit of Berlin like Alex Katz's paintings embody New York's essence in the eighties. Beckmann's paintings from his salad days have a jazz-like quality and easily resonate with today's audiences. Vibrant, sophisticated, limber and sexy -- Beckmann's paintings reflect Berlin's contemporary café culture, which feels endangered by increasing prices and commercial stresses.

Max Beckmann, Quappi mit Papagei (Quappi with Parrot), 1936. Kunstmuseum Mülheim an der Ruhr. © VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2015.

Girl with Cat II, for example, is a large and luscious canvas from 1912 featuring a young woman cradling a playful kitten. The girl's body forms a pleasing circular shape. She curves her entire loose form around the little orange cat in her hands. Her facial features are reduced to charming circular lines and complementary curves form around the two figures, creating a fully harmonious world where the girl cuddles her cat and her environment supportively hugs her. A significantly stiffer 1911 portrait of the homeopathic pioneer Hanns Rabe nevertheless shows Beckmann's appreciation for nimble postures and personalities. In this formal portrait, Rabe is seen standing in a somber suit against a gray background but his relaxed body language is easy and inviting.

Max Beckmann, Nackttanz (from the portfolio "Berlin Travels," leaf 4: Striptease), 1922. Berlinische Galerie, loan from Landes Berlin. © VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2015. Photo: Kai-Annett Becker.

Berlin itself appears less welcoming in Beckmann's melancholic nighttime cityscapes. These paintings' twisted perspective registers as threatening. The bloated and contorted architecture looks like a drunk's wobbly worldview, as if Beckmann were painting while staggering home from the wild cafés and nightspots he depicts. His images of Berlin's nightlife are as chic and sordid as a reader of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories would expect. Like Isherwood, he evocatively depicts a champagne-soaked world of predators and lost souls. Beckmann's 1922 lithograph Striptease sums up Berlin's liberated underworld with a scene showing a cluster of naked women dancing on a stage before a crowd of well-dressed onlookers. The image's titled perspective and sharp angles undercut its eroticism. The jaded audience mostly socializes among themselves while the women pose and move independently of each other. Beckmann's style belies cynical appreciation for Berlin's decadence.

Max Beckmann, Selbstbildnis Florenz (Self-portrait in Florence), 1907. Hamburger Kunsthalle, loan from private collection. © VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2015. Photo: Elke Walford.

Comparing Beckmann's self-portraits indicates that he saw Berlin as a conflicted influence on himself. Standing against a window facing a pretty, summery view in his 1907 Self-portrait in Florence, Beckmann wears a genteel suit and lets a cigarette loosely droop in his hand while he stares directly at the viewer. Technically, this self-portrait's representational composition and light colors have more in common with Monet than Beckmann's denser, heavier, and darker later work. However, the artist's serious expression and casual stance represent the important qualities of his character -- as an earnest observer with a fluid ability to join into his environment. He seems composed and dignified. In sharp contrast is his 1919 self-portrait Self-portrait with Champagne Glass. In this bitterly self-critical work, Beckmann appears as a cunning blond man seated in a nightclub with a cigar in one hand and champagne in the other. The wall-paper behind him is garish. An overexcited man behind his shoulder alludes to lots of drunken fun but Beckmann himself seems more sinister than festive. He is classically handsome yet dark shadows under his eyes and his curled lip read as red flags. Seen out of context, he is easily perceived as a con man or cad. His urbane elegance is successfully seductive but he looks manipulative and decadent. The difference between the two portraits demonstrates Beckmann's maturation from an apparently introspective young man to a significant member of Berlin's nightlife and art-scene. The chaos and creative freedom he shows in other works, such as 1935 The Hurdy-Gurdy Man, transformed him from a dapper youth into a worldly and complicated artist.

Max Beckmann, Selbstbildnis vor rotem Vorhang (Self-portrait in front of red curtain), 1923. Loan from private collection. © VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2015.

As Berliners assess how the city will change, they also want to project how the Berlin they recognize in Beckmann's nightlife works will change them. As Beckmann's show demonstrates, Berlin's gentrification is a light transformation compared to its historical turbulence but the city's liberal and lusty core remains a vibrant constant.

"Max Beckmann and Berlin" runs through February 15, 2016 at Berlinische Galerie.

--Ana Finel Honigman