Throughout Beckmann’s career femininity was central to his iconography. His female figures are frequently shown assertively posed and outlined in sharp black brushstrokes. In Liegender Akt in starker Verkürzung the artist takes up the theme of the reclining female nude and in doing so Beckmann follows a long-established tradition within Western art. In the brightly colored, geometrically-motifed carpet, the artist recalls numerous Odalisques painted by Henri Matisse, perhaps none more so than his Moorish Woman from 1922-23 (see fig. 2), who sits amid multicolored tapestry-covered walls. Echoing Matisse's work in more than the decadent setting, Beckmann's figure emulates that of Matisse in her serpentine curves, raised knee and nearly-nude dress. With the exaggerated curves of her lower body, the minimally draped nude figure in the present work is reminiscent of Amedeo Modigliani’s celebrated La Belle Romaine (see fig. 3)—the composition is similarly dominated by pink, fleshy skin tones which fill the picture frame with a monumental, almost sculptural force. By utilizing the closely cropped composition the scene is stripped of any clues that might help the viewer identify the location of the scene, or the identity of the sitter. This ambiguity imbues the composition with a powerful sense of psychological complexity, characteristic of the artist's most accomplished works.
The marked difference between the present work and the nudes of Modigliani and Matisse is that their models appear at ease in their surroundings and in harmony with their environment; Beckmann’s figure assumes a more forceful, almost menacing presence, which takes its roots in the German artistic tradition. Confronting the viewer with her frontal pose, Beckmann’s nude is at the same time intimidating and sensuously seductive.
Following his dismissal from his teaching position at Frankfurt’s Städel Art School in 1933 and Hitler’s programmatic speech demonizing art by the avant-garde, Max Beckmann and his wife fled from Berlin on July 19, 1937, the very same day that the infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibition opened in Munich. The couple’s relocation to Amsterdam was one of necessity, as Beckmann had, for some time, been singled out by authorities as a subversive presence within the Reich. For one of Germany’s most celebrated living artists, exile was filled with great personal hardship, and yet, throughout the decade he spent in Holland and his subsequent relocation to the United States, Beckmann painted with an undiminished passion in spite of his circumstances. From the imposing self-portraits and massive triptychs depicting scenes of plight and peril inspired by ancient myth, German Modernism’s most commanding figure continued working in his distinctive figurative style from afar.
In the summer of 1947 Beckmann was offered a temporary teaching position at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri at the invitation of Perry T. Rathbone, who was at that time serving as director of the St. Louis Art Museum. For Beckmann, “Apart from death,” the new opportunity in America stood as “definitely the last great sensation that life offers me” (M. Beckmann, Tagebücher 1940-1950, Munich, 1984, entry dated August 23, 1947). The artist’s personal notebooks from this time document his daily activities and reveal his delight upon first entering the Midwestern city which would soon become his home: “St. Louis. At last a park. At last trees, at last ground beneath our feet. A wonderful dream in the park in St. Louis in the morning…It is possible that here it may be possible to live again” (ibid., entry dated September 18, 1947). Beckmann taught for several semesters at Washington University, eventually earning an honorary doctorate from the school in 1950 (see figs. 4 & 5). While Beckmann was already well-known in Europe, his appointment at the university proved pivotal to his artistic ascendance in the new country; in 1948, his first retrospective in the United States took place in St. Louis in 1948 at the City Art Museum, and later traveled to major museums in Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore and Minneapolis.
In stark contrast to his years of anonymity and exile during the war the artist began to return to a life that included both the luxury and freedom that had been denied to him since he fled his home. Writing about Beckmann’s works created during his years in America, Peter Selz commented: "The artist enjoyed the gentle atmosphere of the old American Mississippi city. Provincial yet cosmopolitan, it reminded him of his old residence in Frankfurt. A man enormously attached to the physical aspects of life, Beckmann appreciated an atmosphere so much freer and more opulent than his restricted life in Amsterdam had been… While the style and meaning of his art had changed considerably… the importance of the physicality of his work remained paramount. This certainly is one of the reasons why his paintings, with their chromatic splendor and dense interlace of warp and weft, have an immediate sensuous appeal which precedes any investigations of iconography" (P. Selz, "The Years in America" in Max Beckmann Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), The St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 1984, p. 161).
Beckmann’s legacy within the United States is tied most directly to the work of American painter Philip Guston (see fig. 6). The two artists were associated by circumstance—the teaching position which brought Beckmann to St. Louis had been vacated by Guston who had received a Guggenheim fellowship, quickly followed by the Prix de Rome—as well as a striking affinity between the two men’s paintings. Guston was a great admirer of the German painter, having seen an exhibition of Beckmann’s work at the Buchholz Gallery in New York in 1938. Their shared concern over the complex construction of pictorial space and the development of layered depth, evident in the present work, was paramount in Guston’s paintings from the 1940s. As Peter Selz remarks: “[Guston] was always fascinated by what he referred to as Beckmann’s ‘compressed’ and ‘loaded’ pictures. And there is no doubt that the experience of Beckmann’s work—not only his upturned figures with legs sticking in the air or ladders painting into infinity—had a significant impact on the American painter… In Guston’s late work, as in Beckmann’s, there is also a particular combination of everyday reality which makes palpable an assumed strangeness and fantasy. There is furthermore a deep sense of tragic in the work of both artists…” (ibid., p. 161). Such visual and psychological connections were evident to connoisseurs like Gerald Lennard, who in his collecting sought to plumb the depths of human experience and acquire works of extraordinary emotional weight. Beckmann remained devoted to figuration in his work until his death in 1950, as Guston gradually moved from abstraction to figuration in his latest years.
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