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Schick, Karin, and Hubertus Gassner, eds. Max Beckmann: The Still Lifes.

Schick, Karin, and Hubertus Gassner, eds. Max Beckmann: The Still Lifes. Munich, London, and New York: Prestel, 2014. 200 pp. $60.00 (hardcover).

Stimulated by a pioneering 2013 exhibition of Max Beckmanns "small" still lifes at the Franz Marc Museum, the Hamburg Kunsthalle mounted a large showing of several varieties of the genre in 2014. This carefully researched and beautifully illustrated catalogue is a superb guide to many different aspects of the still lifes in relation to his oeuvre at large. Less numerous and less studied than the figurative pieces and landscapes, the sensuous, intense, and meditative still lifes nonetheless embrace, inform, and invade much of his practice.

Sophisticated, skeptical, and internationally rounded, Beckmann was shaken by World War I, the contemporary economic crises, and the rise of Fascism and Nazism. After four years in Nazi Berlin he fled to Amsterdam upon his inclusion in the 1937 "Degenerate Art"exhibition, but was stranded in Holland by the war and German occupation. He spent the last three years of his life in the United States, where he died unexpectedly in 1950 at age sixty-six.

The catalogue's essays trace Beckmanns fundamentally realistic undertaking with scrupulous attention to form and to his detailed painting list, correspondence, diaries, and theoretical writings; the watercolors of the Amsterdam living quarters produced by his second wife, Mathilde (Quappi) Beckmann; and several of the small objects employed. Curator Karen Schick recognizes directions and preoccupations few have previously noted as she traces his "reactivations" of some of those items--a Caribbean conch shell; an elephant lamp; silver candle sticks; a Chinese toad incense burner; and Peruvian stirrup, Cameroons Grasslands, and Danish vessels--from the everyday to the surreal. Christiane Zeiller distinguishes the ways in which Beckmann sized up objects through drawing in studies or completed still lifes, and came to insist that students learn the forms of nature intimately in order to free their invention. Simon Kelly relates the efflorescence of the American still lifes to Beckmanns renewed experience of teaching. Anna Heinze's discussion of traditional still life iconographies, formats, and compositions emphasizes Beckmanns more personal and direct modernism.

Oriented in the Impressionism of Lovis Corinth and the French, Beckmann approached abstraction through Edvard Munch and Edouard Vuillard before he was decisively inspired by Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque. Barbel Kuster contextualizes his theorizing and practice in relation to Stephane Mallarme and Conrad Fiedler's ideas of light, realism, and idealism and his revisioning of the French modernism of Edouard Manet, Cezanne, and Matisse. By 1926, Beckmann proudly proclaimed that his art was "representative and yet non-representative."

The still lifes' hard to read spaces, constructions, and images are not only intelligible but often directly responsive to the times, as Uwe Schneede detects in contemporary references of paintings produced in Nazi Berlin and wartime Holland. Heike Schreibers analysis of the Hamburg Kunsthalle's 1943/44 Still Life with Fish demonstrates how this arrangement of Mediterranean motifs before a flattened Dutch shore originated during the Allies' winter advance through Italy, when civilians in Holland were still denied access to the sea. On 17 March 1944, Vesuvius experienced its largest twentieth-century eruption, an event that was widely reported even though Naples was occupied and assisted by the Allies. As Schreiber indicates, Beckmann added the volcano to his painting only after the Normandy landings in June, but removed the eruption as the war continued in the autumn. The restless color and composition of an octopus more than convey the period's distress.

In these and many other ways, the authors throw new light on Beckmann both as a master of still life and as a contemporary of a challenging age. The reader emerges as if from studio session, freshly attuned to the intimacies ol pictorial objects, spaces, and architectures in complex interaction over the course of an energetic career.


University of Wisconsin-Madison
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Author:Buenger, Barbara Copeland
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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