It must be easier to promote an international blockbuster when magical words such as “Paris” or “New York” appear in the title. Matters become more complicated when the city of origin is Frankfurt, known as a centre of commerce rather than culture, even though it has at least three major art museums.
One of the few Australian artists to spend time in Frankfurt was Albert Tucker, who went there directly after the Second World War. Even by Tucker’s standards this was a perverse piece of tourism. The city was in ruins, people were starving, and bodies were still being removed from the rubble. He emerged from the trip with a series of suitably gruesome pictures, mainly depicting local prostitutes.
European Masters: Städel Museum, 19th-20th Century at the National Gallery of Victoria is going to make everyone think again about Frankfurt. The exhibition includes works by French Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Rodin, but it is the German art that deserves to attract most attention. In this selection one may read a history of local taste, as the Städel sought to come to terms with the influence of Paris and the innovations of modernism.
This should be a familiar story because Australian museums fought the same battles at the same time. A first parallel is that the National Gallery of Victoria and its counterpart in Frankfurt both owe a debt to a single great benefactor, with Alfred Felton’s bequest of 1904 echoing that of Johann Städel in 1816. The problem lay in deciding how the money should be spent. Modern art, starting with Courbet and then the Impressionists, was bitterly resented by traditionally minded artists and arts administrators. The work was seen as a passing fad, a deliberate act of provocation, an insult to those who had worked to acquire the conventional skills of painting.
The NGV may boast that it was quick to purchase Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, in 1905, but that picture was the exception to the institution’s general hostility towards Impressionism. It is slightly surprising to learn that the Städel Museum had to overcome very similar attitudes towards the new French art. After all, Frankfurt is only 470 kms from Paris.
The crux of the matter was that Germany had its own well-developed schools and traditions, chiefly Neo-classical and Romantic. While an Impressionist landscape concentrated on purely optical sensations, the German Romantics had always viewed the landscape as inherently meaningful. This tendency was most pronounced in the work of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), represented in this show by one small painting, Mountains in the rising fog (c.1835). God is everywhere in Friedrich’s work, and rarely does one see a picture without an intimation of the Passion or the Holy Trinity – found here as a trinity of peaks.
This mixture of religiosity and pantheism was echoed by artists of the next generation such as Carl Friedrich Lessing, whose painting, The thousand-year-old oak (1837), turns the forest into a cathedral, with a canopy of soaring branches. A burst of light illuminates two supplicants kneeling before an image of the Virgin Mary lodged in the trunk of a mighty tree.
The Romantic tradition co-existed with the classical fixations of an artist such as Anselm Feuerbach, and even Carl Rottmann, whose Greek landscape on the island of Aegina (1842-45), is a twilight elegy for the lost world of antiquity. There was also a widespread admiration for the anecdotal paintings of Carl Spitzweg. The show includes a brilliant little study called The widower (1844). It shows a portly man in black allowing his gaze to stray from a portrait of his dead wife as two young women go strolling past.
The first rooms of the exhibition present a condensed history of German art in the 19th century, with roughly one work per artist having to stand for entire schools or movements. One could argue that this is too compressed for its own good, allowing only the most tantalising glimpses of artists who deserve to be better known outside of Germany. The curators may have been concerned about testing the patience of an Australian audience with too many unfamiliar names, but it would be good if we were tested a bit more often.
It is more unsettling to negotiate the passage between the first and second parts of the show through a narrow corridor lined with striped wallpaper and reproduction furniture. For some unknown reason the exhibition designers apparently felt this event required a kitsch interlude.
When German artists began to learn from the Impressionists, they did not take a doctrinaire approach. Lovis Corinth, Max Slevogt and even Max Liebermann combined elements of Naturalism, Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism and Expressionism into evolving personal styles that defy labels. Liebermann comes closest to the Impressionists, but his work in this show, Samson and Delilah (1902), is an old-fashioned history painting given a modern twist. A pale, thin Delilah is a far cry from the usual Salon nude. The grey background makes the setting look more like a prison than a boudoir.
Max Klinger (1857-1920) is better known as a graphic artist but he was a painter and sculptor of tremendous originality. It is a fitting tribute to such an underrated master that his Portrait of a Roman woman on a rooftop in Rome (1891) is reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. There is a hypnotic quality to this work, its anonymous subject posed against a vast, thinly painted field of blue sky. The sketchy houses in the distance could be borrowed from Cézanne, but the woman is as still and precisely delineated as a figure by Piero della Francesca.
Klinger was adept at making every image an enigma, as if he were showing us only part of a larger story. His Roman woman was itself acquired by the Städel as a result of an incident that may have changed history. The work was owned by Walther Rathenau, the Jewish German foreign minister assassinated by extremists in 1922. It is believed that Rathenau’s death speeded the nation’s swing to the right that would eventually bring the National Socialists to power. His mother donated the painting to the museum in his memory.
By the 1930s, even allowing for the trauma of World War 1, the Städel had shaken off its hesitations and emerged as a major patron of modern art. This was signified in its support for the young German artists of the Expressionist movement, Die Brücke (The Bridge). There is no museum in Australia that would have contemplated acquiring a vibrantly coloured painting by Kirchner or Schmidt-Rottluff at that time, let alone a work by Frankfurt resident, Max Beckmann.
In the period between the wars Australia’s art galleries embraced the pastoral dream of Arthur Streeton, Hans Heysen and their numerous imitators. The NGV grew more conservative as the Städel adopted a progressive stance. But although Australian art had its traditionalists, and occasional Anti-Semites, it did not have to deal with the Nazis. When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 it was the beginning of a cultural policy that would see the confiscation of hundreds of works from the collection. Some would end up in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition that opened in Munich in 1937. Ironically, it would be one of the best-attended shows of all time, attracting more than two million visitors during a four-month tour.
In the same year of 1937 Max Beckmann (1884-1950) was dismissed from his teaching post in Frankfurt and saw more than 500 of his works removed from German collections. This extraordinary level of representation is a testament to the esteem in which Beckmann was held during the Weimar years. His departure from Frankfurt was the end of the artist’s relationship with Germany. He would spend ten years in Amsterdam, migrating to the United States after the war.
In his heyday Beckmann considered himself a rival to Picasso, but his reputation would decline during his last years of self-imposed exile. During the same period his work lost none of its dynamism, and he now stands revealed as one of the giants of twentieth century art. The highlight of this show is an entire room of Beckmann’s paintings, and one sculpture. The selection begins with a youthful Self-portrait from 1905, and charts his progress through his stylized works of the Weimar years, into the dark-edged allegories painted in Holland and the United States.
Describing his feelings after he had left Frankfurt, Beckmann wrote: “And then I awoke, but continued to dream… Painting continually appeared to me as the one and only possible achievement.” In The circus carriage (1940) he depicts himself sitting in a cramped position, hemmed in by a reclining woman and a cast of other characters. He glares out from behind a newspaper in mute protest at this indignity. Facing a world of horrors he has retreated within the painting, posing as a figment of his own imagination. To an artist who had lost everything it was the last reliable place of refuge.
European Masters: Städel Museum 19th-20th Century, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, -October 10, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 10, 2010