Max Beckmann, Reclining Nude, 1929, oil on canvas, 32-7/8 x 46-13/16", Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Pablo Picasso, Embrace (Étreinte), 1972, oil on canvas, 51-1/4 x 76-3/4", Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, Photo: Robert McKeever, © Succession Picasso | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

The Female Figure in the Works of Beckman, de Kooning, and Picasso

Willem de Kooning, Two Figures in Landscape, 1968, oil on paper, 48-1/4 x 70-5/8" Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, © Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Willem de Kooning, Standing Woman and Trees, 1965, oil on paper, 25-1/2 x 22-7/8", Ryobi Foundation, Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries, © Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman (La femme qui pleure), 1937, oil on canvas, 21-5/8 x 18-1/8", Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Photo: Peter Schibli, Basel, © Succession Picasso | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Willem de Kooning, The Visit, 1966/1967, oil on canvas, 60 x 48", London, Tate Gallery, Photo: © Tate, London 2012, © Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Max Beckmann, Portrait of Minna Beckmann-Tube, 1924, oil on canvas, 36-1/2 x 28-3/4", Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Sammlung Moderne Kunst in der Pinakothek der Moderne, Donation Günther Franke, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Pablo Picasso, Olga Picasso, 1923, oil on canvas, 51-1/4 x 38-1/4", private collection, © Succession Picasso | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Max Beckmann, Carnival Mask, Green, Violet, and Pink: Columbine, 1950, oil on canvas, 53-1/2 x 39-9/16", St. Louis, Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1944, oil and charcoal on canvas, 46 x 32", New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Collection Thomas B. Hess, © Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.


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Women. Pablo Picasso. Max Beckmann.
Willem de Kooning

March 30-July 15, 2012

Amazons and Other Women.
De Kooning, Rubens,
and the European Impetus


As tenaciously rooted in the America of New York and the East Coast as the work of Willem de Kooning is, it still exudes something of Europe; not in the sense of the sources influencing it, whether proven or otherwise, but rather at the subcutaneous level — at the level of mood. Without wishing to overstretch the parallels, there are two developmental strands which, for all the differences in period and style, either formulate a comparable position or rest on similar ideas: one is the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, the other the considerably more modest paintings of Brücke artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde.

Rubens’s Battle of the Amazons, c. 1618, provides a good lead-in to the first of these. Looking at this work, the viewer soon becomes so hopelessly entangled in the maelstrom of interconnected movements that the actual theme of the work is almost forgotten. Whatever horror we may feel at the cruelty of war—the violence that begets violence, death, and destruction—is soon overtaken by the sheer pleasure of succumbing to the painting’s finely structured forms and colors, its materiality, its sensual presence, even if certain details are hard to decipher. The scene leaves us in no doubt as to the hopelessness of the situation for the feisty women warriors or the inevitability of a Greek victory; yet we feel neither empathy for the underdogs, nor enthusiasm for those about to vanquish them. Our focus is rather on Rubens’s fascinatingly even-handed treatment of all the key players in his composition.

The women, men, and horses all trace a horizontal oval as if engaged in some wild dance that builds up to a dramatic climax on the bridge before dispersing in the countermovement below it. The “negative center” of this oval — the eye of the storm, as it were — is the river in which corpses both human and equine are swept away towards the city burning in the far distance. The color used to accentuate the figures, be it the rather roughly applied red of the robes or the browns and grayish-whites of the horses, is more important to the formal aspects of the composition than to the content. The sheer drama of the his incomparably nuanced flesh have less to do with the Battle of the Amazons per se than with the painter’s desire to showcase extremes of expression and to stretch the intrinsic tension of the work almost to breaking point. And although Rubens must have been familiar with the myth of the Amazons and the stories told about them, and must have known the Classical sources relating to the legendary women warriors, he seems not to have taken much interest in the details of such accounts or even — more crucially still — in the fact that this was a battle between men and women. For him, the battle was first and foremost an opportunity to explore a highly dramatic sequence of events in all its sensuous diversity.

Willem de Kooning captured this in a nutshell when he remarked that Rubens was exceptional “for creating a great style and working in it with complete conviction and reckless abandon.” It would be easy to dismiss this choice of “reckless abandon” as the basis of great art as no more than the projection of a contemporary artist who is bound neither by norms nor by patrons, nor even by any one iconographic template. Yet what it points to much more tellingly, in my view, is that it was quality which made Rubens such an exceptional artist within the tightly knit social structure to which he was subject. What marks him out as special, in other words, is the absolutism of his aspirations and the boldness with which he pushed the envelope of his time, even to the point of overstepping supposedly sacrosanct limits on occasion.

Such constructive radicalism will suffer neither superficial allocations of content nor relativizing distinctions; it abhors simplistic judgments, preconceptions, and prejudices, and insists on approaching the other impartially, seeing it as if with new eyes every time. This is the attitude that informs Rubens’s large figural compositions; but not just them, since it is at its most moving in his portraits of the people he was close to. His painting of his second wife Helene Fourment, c. 1630, hailed by her contemporaries as the “fairest woman in Flanders,” reflects an exceptionally wide range of perceptual possibilities. In terms of type, it is a portrait of a ruler and as such indicative of the artist’s own social status, even if here he is merely paying tribute, in a deeply personal way, to the beauty of his beloved wife, the unusual spontaneity of whose pose is underscored by the spontaneity of his painting. All of this conspires to generate a heavily sensuous atmosphere, the intensity of which is apparent both in the costly robes — rendered almost impressionistically in places — and in the rich and finely nuanced colors, vivid enough to be almost smelled and tasted.

This atmospheric intensity far exceeds that of the situation itself and transforms Helene Fourment into a paragon of timeless beauty — that same beauty that is the object of painting.

To make the leap from here to de Kooning and to what, to the uninitiated, are his shockingly hideous images of women, might seem sacrilegious. The Fury-like Woman II, 1952, and Woman V, 1952-53, who look as menaced as they themselves are menacing, for example, or the pink lumps of flesh dissolving into the landscape in Woman Springs, 1966, or in Woman Singing II— to name but a few of the many series of women which de Kooning so obsessively, indeed manically, pursued in the course of his career — possess a deeply disturbing, and for the viewer overwhelming, presence. Initially decried by art critics as blatant male chauvinism, contempt for women, or perverted sexism, and deplored by fellow artists — for whom de Kooning had become a seminal figure since works like Excavation, 1950, — as a betrayal of the dogma of pure abstraction, these are the paintings that became the benchmark by which to judge their creator’s inventiveness and independence. The women are just as much a part of the composition as is the natural world around them. In both color and mood, they blend in with their surroundings, merging with it to become a single entity.

In an interview with Harold Rosenberg, de Kooning described a very revealing reaction on the part of one of his friends: “Woman I, for instance, reminded me very much of my childhood, being in Holland near all that water. Nobody saw that particularly, except Joop Sanders. He started singing a little Dutch song. I said: ‘Why do you sing that song?’ Then he said: ‘Well it looks like she is sitting there.’ The song had to do with a brook. It was a gag and he was laughing, but he could see it. Then I said: ‘That’s very funny, because that’s kind of what I am doing.’ He said: ‘That’s what I thought.’”

It is hard to think of a more beautiful analogy: the "Woman" series does not reflect any preconceived image of women, nor does it confirm any stereotypes; rather, it serves as a springboard for painterly discoveries and as a catalyst for physical and psychological impressions. This is what resonates in the titles of the works, too, which repeatedly point to landscapes, to places where the artist has lived, or to outdoor activities. They also stand for a certain type of light, for a specific air humidity, for a particular atmosphere, all of which leave their stamp on the color composition. So in this very general way, de Kooning did indeed regard himself as an heir of Rubens. After acknowledging that while in theory, he was of course influenced by artists of all ages, but since he belonged to a different age could not possibly work like them, he described his fascination with Rubens as follows: “ … that’s why I said before that I am an eclectic painter, and that I could be influenced by Rubens, but I would not paint like Rubens.” And elsewhere: “I read somewhere that Rubens said students should not draw from life, but from all the great classic casts. Then you really get the measure of them; you really know what to do. And then, put in your own dimples. Isn’t that marvelous!”

It is de Kooning’s “intrinsicness,” his incomparable synthesis of the figurative and the abstract in an idiom that conveys psychological and physical presence with the utmost intensity that makes his unendingly powerful depictions of women at one with their surroundings such a worthy reformulation of a great and timeless model.

One female critic reviewing the now legendary de Kooning retrospective of 1984, shown first in New York and then in Berlin and Paris, described his images of women as follows: “The female figure is, of course, a motif throughout art history, but the woman in de Kooning’s work, a kind of perverted Rubens nymph, is a savage — though undeniably brilliant — Expressionist distortion of that motif.”

The implied proximity of the two artists, which continues to shine through despite all the historical, social, and individual differences between them, is the proximity forged by an absolutist approach to painting that is independent of historical period.

No less impressive, but certainly simpler, is the influence of the early Brücke painters, whose expressive eruptions of color could well have flowed from the same source. De Kooning may not have known much about this German avant-garde movement, but for all the formal and generational differences between them there are numerous parallels as well.

In the top half of Arthur’s Woman, 1969, figure and landscape combine in a loosely painted, dynamic vortex, while the bottom half is dominated by the legs stamping out their staccato rhythms and by the woman’s overly large feet, long toes, and platform shoes. It is as if her limbs were multiplying at the same speed as the dance. Nor can we say with any certainty whether the pale blue area on the floor is a puddle or a colored shadow. Picasso’s La pisseuse 1965, prings to mind, as does Emil Nolde’s Dance around the Golden Calf, 1910, a work in which a biblical subject is elevated to an utterly worldly, orgiastic celebration of life itself. Some of the works in the "Montauk" series, 1969, and even paintings such as Woman in the Water, 1972, convey a synthesis of nature and figure that in many ways is comparable with the early Moritzburg Lake paintings of the Brücke artists.

Only in the paintings they produced during their holidays in Moritzburg near Dresden between 1909 and 1911 did the Brücke artists achieve the kind of immediacy and untrammeled sensuality in interpersonal relations they liked to dream of. Their incorporation of humans into a primordial, Arcadian-like setting was bought at the cost of the individuality of their figures, as the example of Kirchner shows. Such unity in a state of paradisiacal harmony entails a synthesis that refrains from exploring subjective states of mind. The Playing Naked People, 1910,are utterly faceless and form a whole with the natural world surrounding them in terms of both form and color.

There are echoes of an almost sentimental longing for a lost Arcadia in this work, even if the spontaneity and emphatic volatility of the painting characterize it as elusively beyond our grasp. Significantly, the Brücke artists believed the transient state of pure harmony could only be experienced during this brief period. Individual differences, like the illusory nature of harmonious communion, quickly became clear, just as Kirchner himself soon saw the impossibility of integrating free sexuality in his interpretation of reality.

According to his biography and what we know about the genesis of his works, de Kooning achieved this absolute freedom by turning back. His retreat from New York City — a move which doubtless had just as much to do with his antipathy for the social consequences of fame as with his deeply rooted yearning for landscape and water — won him the felicitous ability to capture its atmosphere, its smells, and its mood in his works, and through the very act of painting to become one with nature.

Exhibition Women. Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning brings together 100 works from institutions such as State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Tate Gallery, London, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York, Centre Pompidou and the Louvre, Paris as well as loans from private collections which have never been on public display before. Pinakothek der Moderne holds one of the most comprehensive collections of Max Beckmann works in the world.

This landmark exhibition sheds new light on the work of Beckmann, Picasso and de Kooning, exploring the role attributed to women in their art. The show sets aside familiar clichés about the artists’ private lives and relationships to women to allow for a more dispassionate analysis of the female figure as subject matter in their work. In doing so, women become more than projections of male fantasies and desires and gain a significance of their own. In the work of Picasso, for instance, women often act as a mirror for problems and turmoils of his time, whereas in Beckmann’s work the female figure seems to represent otherworldly freedom contrasting with the stark realities of the world around him. The exhibition brings together some of the most exceptional portraits of women painted by the three artists and place them in dialogue with one another.

Curator, Carla Schulz-Hoffmann explains, »Unlike common views and interpretations in art history, the works of Picasso, Beckmann and de Kooning represent free and emancipated women. Their works show the power of art: they still do provoke us today where pornographic images are part of our visual culture. This means that the works reach us on a deeper level and show the strength of art.«

Lenders and Catalogue This exhibition of 100 paintings consists of works from major international museums including Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Saint Louis Art Museum; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Hermitage, St. Petersburg; Tate Gallery, London; Centre Pompidou, Musée d‘Orsay, Paris; Kunstmuseum Basel; Fondation Beyeler, Riehen; and private collections. A comprehensively illustrated, interdisciplinary catalogue in German and English has been published, and contains contributions by Siri Hustvedt, Richard Shiff, Feridun Zaimog?lu, Uwe M. Schneede, Michael Köhlmeier, Elisabeth Bronfen, Doris Dörrie and Carla Schulz-Hofmann.

Willem de Kooning, Woman V, 1952/53, oil and charcoal on canvas, 60-7/8 x 45-1/8", Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, © Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Pablo Picasso, The Dryad (Nu dans une forêt), 1908, oil on canvas, 72-3/4 x 42-1/2", St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum, Photo: Eremitage/Vladimir Terebenin, © Succession Picasso | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Max Beckmann, Woman with Mandolin in Yellow and Red, 1950, oil on canvas, 36-1/4 x 55-1/8", Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Sammlung Moderne Kunst in der Pinakothek der Moderne, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.

Pablo Picasso, Interior with a Girl Drawing (Deux femmes), 1935, oil on canvas, 51-1/4 x 76-3/4", New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Nelson A. Rockefeller Bequest, 1979, Photo: © 2012, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, © Succession Picasso | VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012.