The exhibition “Modern German Masterpieces,” now at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, is a dazzling visual experience of a very high order.
We can all be grateful to the museum for bringing it here. But it reminds us that so much of the best that comes our way, especially in the visual arts, is transient. None of our art museums has the resources to put together a traveling exhibition of such coherence and quality from its own collections. It is a reason for envying the St. Louis Art Museum, which owns the 45 works that it has been circulating nationally in this exhibition for fully a year during refurbishing of its building.
All but one of the 45 paintings by major artists of the early 20th-Century German avant garde included in the exhibition were part of the bequest of Morton D. May, a lifelong resident of St. Louis whose name is borne by the May Co. department stores. Soon after May began collecting art in 1946, he became acquainted with the work of German painter Max Beckmann, who had come to the city in 1947 to teach at Washington University.
May became an enthusiast of Beckmann’s paintings because they were the first works of art that truly moved him. He liked them, moreover, because they were about people.
He became a patron and, already an avid amateur photographer and painter, a student of the artist. It was a point of pride for him that, through his association with Beckmann, he learned about art from the artist’s point of view. Beckmann also helped him learn to appreciate Oceanian and African art.
“May collected with the idea in mind of collecting for society,” James Burke, director of the St. Louis Art Museum, said during the exhibition’s press preview.
Because of May’s exemplary connoisseurship and patronage, only a few museums in Germany can rival St. Louis for the wealth of its holdings in German Expressionism.
Beckmann, a giant of 20th-Century German art, is represented by 20 of the 45 works in the exhibition. They range from a conventional seascape dated 1905 to sinisterly enigmatic works up to 1950, the year he died.
Born in 1884, Beckmann had already achieved a substantial reputation and become the object of critical scrutiny and academic favor before World War I. The portrait of his wife, “Minna Beckmann With Purple Shawl” (1909-1910) exemplifies his then-conservative aesthetic. He publicly took issue with the artists in Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter groups for their experiments in color and form.
World War I, which he greeted with enthusiasm, as did most other Europeans, was a turning point for Beckmann. Lacking military training, he volunteered as an orderly in the medical corps and was sent to the Western front, the site of prolonged and indecisive trench warfare. Assigned to work in a morgue, he began to suffer from hallucinations and nightmares. After he was discharged in 1917, he resumed painting, but with a difference.
For example, the figures in “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” are grotesque and ashen, rather like broken, cadaverous bodies, although still active. And the eyes of several figures are closed as if in death.
Seemingly blind figures also appear in the hallucinatory “The Dream” (1921), in which a multilated man carrying a large fish (in Beckmann’s iconography representing the soul and traditionally a symbol of Christ) mounts a ladder that may represent a cross. A common woman grasping a cello in the foreground appears to have lost control of her bladder.
In this and other paintings, Beckmann effectively portrayed a world that had been turned upside down by war, revolution and depression.
His aim was to “give people a picture of their fate,” he wrote. “And we can only do that if we love humanity.”
A successful career was set back by the Nazis, who honored Beckmann by including 10 of his paintings in the exhibition of “Degenerate Art” in Munich in 1937. He left for Amsterdam, where he stayed during World War II and never returned to Germany. After the war, he moved to the United States. Beckmann died in New York in 1950.
His paintings are not easy to look at. Although the artist insisted that they are puzzles about the human condition that viewers can figure out, they appear to be more like congeries of freely associated, distorted and expressively colored images whose full meaning may not even have been accessible to Beckmann himself.
Works such as “Large Still Life/Interior (Blue)” and “Boulder--Rocky Landscape” (both 1949) are, however, wildly beautiful visual experiences.
Also included in the exhibition are works by Heinrich Campendonk, Lovis Corinth, Lyonel Feininger, Erich Heckel, Alexej Jawlensky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Ludwig Meidner, Otto Mueller, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Paul Klee. Most represent the aesthetic known as German Expressionism.
Since their intention was to convey human experience directly through art without mediation through the rational faculties, the way to approach the exhibition is with senses and feelings unguarded.
It continues through March 29.