November 22, 2016

From Darkness to Light - Beckmann and Klee at The Met

Last Saturday was a splendid autumn day in New York, clear blue skies, mild temperatures and perfect for a walk in Central Park to admire the last of the foliage.  As is often the case, I ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and decided to pop in and have a look at what's new.  One of the main exhibitions currently on view is "Max Beckmann in New York" a mini-retrospective of the German painter focusing on his final years.

Max Beckmann "Self Portrait with Horn", 1938

Although often classified as an Expressionist, it was a label that Beckmann himself rejected.  Traumatized by his experience as a medical orderly during World War I, Beckmann's portrayals tend toward the dark and haunting rather bleak view of civilization.

"Paris Society", 1925, revised 1931 and 1947

Despite enjoying both critical and commercial success in post-war Weimar, Beckmann's fortunes began to turn with the rise of Hitler and the National Socialist Party.  Branded a "cultural Bolshevik" and considered a "degenerate artist", Beckmann chose to leave Germany with his wife Quappi and they remained in exile in Amsterdam from 1937 until the end of World War II.

"The Beginning", 1946-49

The Beckmanns were finally granted a visa and left for the United States in 1947.  Their first stop was Saint Louis where Max had earned a temporary teaching position at Washington University.  After two years Max transferred to New York and taught at the Brooklyn Museum Art School.  As you can probably imagine, the Beckmanns were happy to be back in a major metropolis during peacetime and life was good.  They enjoyed the cultural stimulation and the nightlife, especially the bars of The Plaza and St Regis Hotel.
"Plaza (Hotel Lobby)", 1950

One December afternoon in 1950, Max Beckmann set off to view one of his paintings (see below) in an exhibition at The Met when he succumbed to a heart attack at the corner of 69th Street and Central Park West, not far from his (and my) apartment.  It was a sudden and dramatic end to an intensely lived life and this current exhibition is a fitting tribute to an artist who was reborn in New York only to have his second chance snatched away.

"Self Portrait in Blue Jacket", 1950
Exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in
"American Painting Today"

After the rather downbeat tenor of "Max Beckmann in New York" I was definitely in the mood for something a little more lighthearted.  Of course The Met had the perfect antidote, just not in the Fifth Avenue location but a few steps away in the new Met Breuer where "Humor and Fantasy - The Berggruen Paul Klee Collection" is on view on the fifth floor.

Paul Klee in his studio in Dessau, Germany, 1925

Born in Switzerland in 1879, Paul Klee began his artistic career as a member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) before a trip to Tunisia in 1914 permanently changed his perspective and style.  From then on, his work took on a lovely, ethereal quality filled with color and light and about as far removed from Max Beckmann as you can imagine.

"Hammamet With Its Mosque", 1914

In 1984, The Met was the enviable recipient of a donation of 90 works by Paul Klee from the German art dealer and collector Heinz Berggruen.  Mr Berggruen (1914-2007) was passionate about 20th century art and a consummate collector of works by some of its biggest stars.  A good part of his collection of works by Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Giacometti is now housed in his eponymous museum near the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, but his magnificent group of drawings, watercolors and oils by Paul Klee is right here in New York City.

"Black Columns in a Landscape", 1919

This temporary installation of 70 works at the Met Breuer (formerly The Whitney Museum of American Art), spans the entire spectrum of Klee's career from his earliest drawings done in 1893, to his last paintings executed before his death at the age of 60.

"Boy in Fancy Dress", 1931

Though Klee's work may appear simplistic or even childish, he was always considered a very serious artist and his works are coveted by collectors around the world.  A natural draftsman and color theorist, Klee has been associated with schools from Expressionism to the Bauhaus, Cubism to Surrealism and his "Writings on Form and Design Theory" aka "The Paul Klee Notebooks" are considered as important to modern art as Leonardo da Vinci's "A Treatise on Painting" was for the Renaissance.

"May Picture", 1925

I have long been an admirer of the work of Paul Klee, probably because I love color and find his work joyful without being trite.  Though true Klee scholars find political and sociological references in his work, I find it simply beautiful and "Humor and Fantasy" was a lovely way to wrap up a glorious Saturday afternoon in the fall.

"Man Under the Pear Tree", 1921

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