Cradled in one hand, the cat peers up past a rugged terrain of bodice and beads into Fridel’s aging, pain-illuminated face. Fridel looks hurt, presents her wrist as if the cat has scratched her, but there isn’t any scratch at all.

Fridel Battenburg, Frankfurt, 1920: Max Beckmann’s well-known portrait of the woman who hasn’t been scratched, a study in the ambiguities of suffering. Like all portraits it is also to some degree a self-portrait, especially in that Beckmann adored Fridel and often saw himself in her. Over and over her gentle, haggard face appears in his paintings and drawings; we wish we knew more about their friendship. We do know this: that whenever his life burned down to precarious embers, he turned to her; that she was a dedicated and much-admired musician; and that he called her “the Cat” on account of her odd blend of fondness and...


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