Munich people looking at pictures: Beckmann

Hidden details

Our author has taken a bit of time out and spent four hours looking at the painting "Large Still Life with Telescope" by Max Beckmann in the Pinakothek der Moderne.

Before we get started, I need to make one thing clear: if you are expecting an intellectual discussion about the art of Max Beckmann – or even art in general – then, by the time you reach the end of this piece, you will be bitterly disappointed. It would be like asking a mountain goat to analyse “The Duino Elegies” by Rainer Maria Rilke. I don’t have a clue about art. I had to date an art historian to find out that Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider, group of artists) had nothing to do with a drunken man on a horse. Shocked? She was too.

And yet, here I am, sitting here, on a black cushioned bench in Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne (art gallery), starring at the painting entitled "Large Still Life with Telescope" by Max Beckmann. I am supposed to sit here for at least four hours and look at the picture. And all the while to observe the effect it is having on me. What do you notice when you really take the time to do something? What hidden details can you discover? It is a large oil painting on a canvas. In my apartment it would cover the entire kitchen wall. Beckmann is supposed to have once said: “When I am not in the café or in bed, I paint pictures that are 5.5 x 4 m in size. In short, I behave as a genius should.” The master painter was not exactly modest.

The picture shows a woman sitting on a chair. She is sitting in front of a round table, upon which various objects sit, including four vases of flowers. A telescope lies next to these objects. I pull my notebook out of my back trouser pocket and write: “It must be the woman’s birthday”. Analysing art isn’t really that hard, I think, and close my notebook again. I check the time on my phone. Only ten minutes have passed.
I should have brought a sandwich and a drink with me. Are you even allowed to eat in a museum, or is it like the theatre? An old man moves between me and the still life and blocks my view. He is wearing grey pleated-front trousers and a black polo-neck jumper. It appears to be the dress code for the museum, as many of the other visitors in the room are wearing the same thing. In the opera you wear a suit, in the swimming pool a swimsuit and in the Pinakothek a polo-neck jumper. Where did the polo-neck jumper actually get this intellectual image from? I grab my phone again and google “polo-neck”. I find an article about it on Zeit Online (a German newspaper). According to the article, they were worn by young bohemians in the mid-20th century to distinguish themselves from the bourgeois with their ties. Then I google “Bohème” and come across the term “Digital Bohème” coined by Sascha Lobo and then end up looking at Amazon reviews for a bread-making machine. Damn it. Concentrate, Max! I have got a job to do. So, back to the painting.

"Analysing art isn’t really that hard, I think, and close my notebook. I check the time on my phone. Only ten minutes have passed. Hmm."

In front of me, a man folds his arms and takes a moment to look at Beckmann’s still-life. He then nods his head thoughtfully and takes a sidestep to the next picture. This is how most of the visitors behave. While they take time to look at the other paintings, they only give this one a brief glance. My picture is like the drunken uncle at a family party. You stand next to him for a short while out of politeness but then move on. It is too taxing in comparison with the other works in the hall. Max Beckmann often painted portraits, including of himself (as I said before, modesty was not really his thing), such as Self-portrait in black, which is also hanging in this room. Pictures that are quick to take effect. Like a flu jab or a shot of tequila. Not like the picture in front of me, which makes you ask: “A woman? A table? And then, beneath it, an orange object that looks like a traffic cone on its side and a telescope next to it? What is this nonsense supposed to mean?!”

I stand up from my observation post and approach the painting to take a closer look. A security guard watches me. He is probably thinking: “This guy isn’t wearing a polo-neck jumper, that means trouble.”

“So, should we take a look what we have here then?” I mumble, just as my car mechanic does when I bring my car in for its MOT. Bright colours, that is what we have here, I assert. Also, the woman on the picture is wearing a turban and is hiding half of her face behind a fan. In actual fact, she doesn’t have any female sexual characteristics. Why did I immediately assume that it is a woman? How did the artist create this impression?
Good question. I flick through my notebook again and write: “Person has their legs crossed. Only women do that. And Markus Lanz.”

"On the right edge I notice the black frame of a door, with a handle and a bunch of keys. It is as though someone has opened this door to give the viewer a look inside the room."

I walk back to my bench and pull my phone out of my trouser pocket to google more information about Max Beckmann. He was born in 1884 in Leipzig and, by his mid-thirties, had become one of the most highly regarded artists of his time. Then the Nazis came to power. They terminated his professorship at Frankfurt University of Fine Art and, in 1937, confiscated the Large still-life with telescope and displayed it, along with other works, in their Degenerate Art exhibition. Beckmann initially fled to Amsterdam and then to New York, where he died in 1950.

Nowadays, he is considered to be one of the most important artists of the Classic Modernism movement. His painting Bird’s Hell sold at auction for almost 41 million euros in 2017. A certain sense of grief is typical for his paintings, which is not at all surprising when you consider his life. In fact, the "Large Still Life with Telescope" is darkening my mood a bit. Even though there are flowers on the table and the colours are bright, the scene looks melancholic. There is a second chair next to the woman. It is empty and she is looking towards it. Maybe she is alone and no one came to her birthday party? I walk closer to the painting again; on the one hand to look for details that I might not yet have noticed and on the other because my backside is really starting to hurt.

On the right edge I notice the black frame of a door, with a handle and a bunch of keys. It is as though someone has opened this door to give the viewer a look inside the room. The fact that the woman is looking to the side and the door isn’t fully open makes it feel as though we are sneaking a look inside and as though there is a secret in the room. Maybe because the woman is a transvestite? I jot these thoughts in my notebook right away and sit back down.

When I stand up four hours later, my backside has made a clear mark in the bench cushion. I wasn’t able to reveal the secret of the painting. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t think it was Max Beckmann’s intention. In fact, I think that the charm of the work is that it can be interpreted in so many different ways. But there is one thing that I have learnt today: you need to take time to look at a work of art, so that you can feel the sentiment and so that you can discover the small details in the picture. Just as you don’t down a fifteen-year-old Burgundy like water after a marathon in summer. I think it has an almost calming effect in today’s world, in which everything moves so quickly and people spend less than a second looking at photos on Instagram before moving on. Maybe I will visit the Pinakothek more often in the future, to relax.



Text: Maximilian Reich; Photos: Frank Stolle; Max Beckmann © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020


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