Several years ago, at a panel of art academics, I witnessed an eye-opening event. Behind an array of dons were projected the images of two Picasso paintings—one, an abstract arrangement of colored shapes, the other, a figure. After a surfeit of deliberations on the circumstances of production, theories of sexuality, and the artist’s “gaze,” a student from the audience stood to make an observation. This abstract image, he suggested, mirrored key shapes in the figural work; namely, one could see a resemblance between the purple void carved out by the legs of the figure on the one side, and the dominant, diamond-shape field in the abstraction on the other. He was right. An artist we knew so well could still surprise. Picasso buried his mysteries right there out in the open.
With his inventiveness and range, Picasso created his own artistic canon. More often than not, he quoted himself. He explored classicism and a host of themes following World War I, but he rooted his language in a syntax developed in cubism. Cubism’s explosive tension between surface and depth echoed throughout his production. It also provided a means of dissimulation. Only Picasso could paint a purple diamond in an abstract design and suggest, ever so subtly, that you were looking at a woman’s crotch. You might say Picasso put the sex in abstraction and never took it back—even when he should have.
Max Beckmann (1884–1950), a contemporary of Picasso (1881–1973), also developed his own artistic language. But whereas Picasso did so out of force of will, Beckmann did so out of a felt necessity. “The German painter needs to be invented,” he wrote in 1926. Ten years later, that necessity took on a political dimension. Beckmann was labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazi regime. As he fled to Paris and then Holland, Beckmann used a developing visual mythology to conceal his own misgivings about the deteriorating state of affairs. If Picasso was sex-obsessed, Beckmann became haunted by his own country and the prospects of war.
Secretive, individual, and self-referential, Beckmann and Picasso were two artists who seemed to follow parallel paths in modern art. For the first time, we can now explore their possible convergence. Richard L. Feigen (the Beckmann expert) and Jan Krugier (Picasso) have pooled their resources for an exhibition, at the Feigen gallery, that will no doubt be the start of a larger investigation.
The lines of connection seem to be everywhere in “Beckmann-Picasso/Picasso- Beckmann.” This is as true for Picasso, of whom we think we know everything, as for Beckmann, of whom we still know very little. Picasso’s publicity and Beckmann’s privacy could both screen us from their full accomplishments.
Early Beckmann is represented here through an assortment of drypoint prints that can only be described as “northern.” Theater (1916) twists and squeezes Gilda and the Duke of Mantua from Verdi’s Rigoletto into a visual cacophony. Prosit Neujahr (1917), perhaps the best of these early examples, finds revelers blowing kazoos with eyes bulging, an entire back-story of characterization worked into each of their faces. The earliest painting on display, Artist at the Beach (1930), brings Marsden Hartley’s late-life bathers to mind. Matrose (1936), a large self-portrait of the artist as a Dutch seaman reading an anti-fascist newspaper, hints at the more mythological portraits to come. It also reveals Beckmann’s emerging political sensibility.
While Beckmann’s visual mythology began to take shape in the 1930s, Corrida (1934), one of the earlier Picassos here on display, is already a mature work. A flattened bull wraps his neck around the twisted figure of a horse. Guts spill out of a belly. The painting prefigures Guernica—but yes, perhaps something is missing.
An underlying argument of this exhibition may be that this “something” came from Beckmann. Picasso may have turned Beckmann on to a fuller understanding of surface (he turned the world on to a fuller understanding of surface), but Beckmann may have imparted to Picasso a more expressive brush and a broader range of imagery. “Whereas Picasso renders only modern types, Beckmann mixes the legendary and the modern,” writes Barbara C. Buenger, who has contributed a free-standing essay for the show (there is no catalogue). This is mainly true—Beckmann is more broadly allegorical while Picasso engages more with the School of Paris. But in Figure de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne (1937), the most Beckmann-like Picasso in the show, we find symbols—flags and crowns—that do not come from Picasso’s standard repertoire of stock images. This painting also employs a hasty hatch-work that runs contrary to Picasso’s usual taste for fastidiousness and the thin application of paint. When compared to Beckmann’s Kinder des Zweilichts (Orkus) (1939), a brushy dream full of netherworld nobility, circles, fish, and eyes, the similarities appear all too obvious. The same may be said in the opposite way as Beckmann relies on recurring surface shapes in his later work. In Soldier’s Dream (1942), the circle may be a clock, the end of a trumpet, or the edge of a mirror. In other paintings, Beckmann’s profile becomes an iconic form, just as Picasso styles himself the artist-bull in Palette et tête de taureau (1938). Beckmann becomes increasingly sensitive to the kinetic powers of a unified surface just as Picasso took on a more expressive brush.
These artists were not close, although they followed each other’s work. Picasso reported (to Krugier) that he visited Beckmann’s 1931 Paris show every day it ran. Their debt to one another may only be fleshed out with fuller treatment—this show, albeit wisely assembled, is just the start, and too many questions are left unanswered. The sculptures here, for one, bear out no apparent relation between artists. Is this true across the board? Picasso’s later production—he outlived Beckmann by over two decades—also trails off indeterminately in the current hanging. There are hints that Picasso finally “got” Beckmann after Beckmann’s death—Picasso’s Bouquet (1969) is compared to Beckmann’s Oyster Eaters (1943) in the gallery lobby—but why then? This exhibition can be exciting because it raises such questions. I hope the future bears out a few more answers.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925–1972) may be about the most honest photographer around. He never hid behind his camera. Rather, the camera in his hands became a tool for experimentation, manipulation, abstraction, and the visualizing of a private cosmos. He staged his shots. He placed his family and friends in the derelict buildings around his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. He composed his images with the care of a Poussin. “When looking at a selection of Meatyard’s photographs,” writes Cynthia Young, the curator of a major new retrospective at the International Center of Photography, “one might think that several different photographers made them. The abstract work seems different from the no-focus imagery, which in turn seems different from the landscapes, the portraits, or the pictures of his family.” Different though they may be, his photographs share the same easy-going nature of what simply comes to mind after a lifetime of thought.
The current exhibition of over 150 photographs at ICP has been assembled with the help of Guy Davenport, the University of Kentucky professor and writer (including for this magazine) who was an early champion of Meatyard’s work. In 1974, in an essay reproduced in the ICP catalogue, Davenport wrote, “I remember thinking that here was a photographer who might illustrate the ghost stories of Henry James, a photographer who got many of his best effects by introducing exactly the right touch of the unusual into an authentically banal American usualness.”
Meatyard could tap into something rooted in America without falling prey to typical banalities. To my eyes, his early Georgetown Street scenes and his American flag series border on the sentimental, as do some of his more countrified landscapes. Yet Meatyard’s symbolist “motion-sound” series captured the wind rustling through the grass without affect. His “Family Album of Lucybelle Crater” (1969–1972), featuring his own family posing in grotesque masks (inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s 1955 story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”), beat out Cindy Sherman by years and did it better. His poetic portraits of Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, and Thomas Merton could be soulful and mesmerizing and illustrative of the creative spirit. After a visit from Meatyard and two friends, “Merton joked that he had received ‘three kings from Lexington’ at the hermitage,” according to the Merton biographer Paul Elie. With painterly photographs by a richly American artist, this exhibition has a nobility that is rarely captured by the cold stare of the camera lens.
The German periodical London und Paris once praised James Gillray (1756–1815) as “the foremost living artist in the whole of Europe.” He lampooned the breadth of Europe—from his own Tory party to Whigs, Jacobins, Germans, smallpox vaccinations, Edmund Burke, King George IV, Queen Charlotte, Prime Minister William Pitt, to his favorite target, Napoleon Bonaparte (“Little Boney”)—and still he was collected widely. Bonaparte himself was said to be particularly amused by The first Kiss this Ten Years! . . . or . . . the meeting of Britannia & Citizen François (1803), which features the skinny French general embracing a beach ball of a British lady. Gillray’s talents for combining the political with the grotesque could not have come at a better time in history.
One-hundred-sixty prints and drawing from the restored collection of Samuel J. Tilden are now on display at the New York Public Library. Trained at the Royal Academy, Gillray far outstripped his satirist contemporaries. In his sense for food and fat, he became an English Rubens. “Sallads and eggs and lighter fare/ Tune the Italian spark’s guitar;/ And if I take Don Congreve right/ Pudding and beef make Britons fight,” wrote Matthew Prior in 1718. As for gas—from the noble to the debased, from the pressure of a balloon, the firing of a canon, to an exploding bottle of sherry—Gillray was a master of drafting “hot air.” The metaphor became real in his imagination and through his pen.
For all of our grousing, we cannot begin to match the heartburn and splenetics of life at the turn of the nineteenth century. Today’s politics can taste quite bland once you work up a stomach for Gillray.
- “Beckmann-Picasso/Picasso-Beckmann” opened at Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York, on October 30, 2004, and remains on view through January 31, 2005. Go back to the text.
- “Ralph Eugene Meatyard” opened at the International Center of Photography, New York, on December 10, 2004, and remains on view through February 27, 2005. A catalogue featuring an essay and interview with Guy Davenport has been published by ICP/Steidl (300 pages, $60). Go back to the text.
- “James Gillray” opened at the New York Public Library on October 29, 2004, and remains on view through January 30, 2005. An extensive online guide to the exhibition is available at www.nypl.org. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 5, on page 44
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