(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, September 1991)
Max Beckmann‘s 1941 painting The Actors shows a crowded stage, and all the players on it. A king, wearing a crown, stabs himself in the heart with a huge silver dagger. A woman looks at her reflection in a mirror, next to a statue of a Greek god, with curly hair and contemplative gaze. Below the stage, modern men and women read the newspaper, play the saxophone, talk, flirt, and fight with real knives. It aims to encompass all of art and life in jagged, lyrical colors and shapes, all outlined in thick, sure slashes of black paint.
For many years, Beckmann’s triptych was displayed in a gloomy, shrine-like room in Adoplphus Busch Hall—a building designed in 1910 to house plaster casts of German sculpture. The old Busch-Reisinger Museum was a charming, romantic place to visit, but it was often so dark that you couldn’t see the art—you couldn’t catch the subtleties of color and line. Now, in the bright serene light of the museum’s new home in Werner Otto Hall, which opens to the public on Tuesday, you can fully experience the dazzling hot lime green of a curtain, the vibrant orange of a flower, the juicy pink of the singer’s dress, the sea-blue curve of an unmade bed, the black hole of the saxophone, dark subtle, violent, jazzy colors that thrill you with their intensity and dissonance.
The Busch-Reisinger Museum opened in 1903 as a museum dedicated to the art of Central and Northern Europe. But in the 1930’s and 40’s, when the Nazis declared modern art “degenerate,” the museum became a haven for works of art by artists from the Bauhaus and other centers of modernism. Its collection includes major paintings and drawings by Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Klee, El Lissitzky, Edvard Munch, and Lázló Moholy-Nagy. For these artists, Modernism was much more than just a style. It was a new visual language—a revolutionary new vision of the world. For some artists, Modernism was expression—a new visual language of feeling and form.
In Franz Marc’s 1911 Red Horses, three young horses dance with the billowing clouds of trees and hills beneath a brilliant yellow sky; their manes are lyrical curves of dark purple and black; their soft blue eyes look out at the world with a rapturous gaze. Like Beethoven‘s Pastorale Symphony, it’s a beautiful dream of the Earth, from which you waken with a deep and grateful sense of connection to the flow of life.
Two paintings by Alexei von Jawlensky elucidate the pull toward abstraction in modern art. His 1911 Head of a Woman shows the face of a woman with piercing dark blue eyes; his 1927 Composition #1, Sunrise is exactly the same in size and color, but completely abstract.
The first painting evokes the woman’s physical presence—her dark, passionate eyes, and sad, spiritual face. In the second painting, her image has disappeared. Her face is an oval, her skin is a transparent plane; and the light that was shining on her brow is now a bright, luminous circle—the setting sun.
For other artists, Modernism was about the energy and dynamism of modern life—the brave new world of skyscrapers and machines. El Lissitzky’s luminous abstract paintings show overlapping geometric forms floating in infinite space. Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic sculpture, Light-Space Modulator, looks like a great city lit up at night.
Max Beckmann’s 1927 Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo shows the modern artist as a man of power and vision. Newly cleaned, unvarnished, it’s painting stripped of everything that’s not essential—representation pushed right up to the edge of abstraction — the world-transforming visionary passion of Modern Art.
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com