Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Femmes Fatale, Degenerate Perverts and Guys in Funny Hats at the NGV

The current Winter Masterpieces exhibition at the NGV is one of the best in the series. We are very lucky that the Städel Museum in Frankfurt is undergoing refurbishment and that our city is allowed to host some of the works in their collection while this is happening. It is such a large collection that I went back for a second look two weeks after my first visit, and I may well go again before it departs.

The exhibition essentially traces the development of German art, but also includes a magnificent selection of works by other artists, among them Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, van Gogh … some lovely landscapes by Corot, Courbet and Sisley … a gorgeous Picasso portrait of his mistress Fernande Olivier, one of his first forays into Cubism. And the list goes on. I was particularly delighted to see so many German Expressionist works, including a whole roomful of Max Beckmanns.

I have to say my first reaction was rather a heretical one: the piece de resistance of the collection didn't elicit much from me except an incredulous giggle. Tischbein's "Goethe in the Roman countryside" would more aptly have been titled "Goethe with two left feet, wearing the Queen Mum's hat." I don't know what Goethe did to offend Tischbein, but Tischbein certainly had the last laugh.

There were a number of lovely landscapes that held my attention: among them a dark Cezanne, a Sisley view of the Seine, a Courbet winter scene (very like the one he painted as a false front for "The Origin of the World") and two Corot plein air oil sketches of the kind that he used as reference for his studio work. I was thrilled to see the original of Monet's beautiful "Houses at Zaan" - it is reproduced so often and, as usual, it is smaller than I imagined and no reproduction could ever replicate the subtle, glowing colours. That Monet understood water!

I was entranced by a cottage painted by van Gogh when he was living near Nuenen in 1885 - the year before his brother Theo advised him to start using strong, bright colours. The cottage picture is all subfusc shades, very subdued and unlike the images that spring to mind at the mention of Van Gogh.

There is an spectacular canvas by Monet: "Luncheon" - over 2 metres high, with life-size figures of two women, a child in a high chair and a maid hovering in the background. They have not started eating and are clearly waiting for the man of the house to assume the empty chair in the foreground - his newspaper is waiting beside his plate. I don't know why this painting is not titled "Breakfast" - they are having boiled eggs, bread and fruit. Not to mention the newspaper. Either way, if you haven't been to see the exhibition yet, you will miss this painting because it is travelling to Paris on 1st September for a Monet retrospective.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the original of the oft-reproduced The jealous lioness by Paul Meyerheim. He specialised in realistic animal paintings with an anthropomorphous subtext. In this case, he tells a story about romantic rivalry through the image of the strutting male between the snarling lioness and the beautiful woman possessively caressing his mane.

The concept of the femme fatale was a popular one at a time when the inequality of women was becoming an issue: women had very limited freedom. Artists and writers began to depict the femme fatale as symbol of aggressive femininity, who could use her beauty to gain power in a society that did not recognise her intellectual value.

Another such femme fatale is Max Liebermann's Delilah in the arresting life-size "Samson and Delilah". Samson slumps forward submissively under Delilah's hand on his head, while she triumphantly holds his shorn locks aloft towards the Philistines waiting in the wings. His tanned, muscular body is in stark contrast to her pale, fragile one, yet she is plainly the victor here.

I was very taken by the simple beauty of Max Klinger's enigmatic "Woman on a Rooftop in Rome". She perches rather stiffly on an upright chair on the bare rooftop: her expression contemplative but her thoughts inscrutable. She seems almost a giantess against the Lilliputian cityscape behind her. Klinger's work is has all the ambiguity of the Symbolist that he is, but in this picture he seems to veer towards the incongruity of the surrealists. A mesmerising picture: I found it difficult to move on!

"At the Window" by Fritz von Uhle reminded me very much of a picture I had seen in the Hans Heysen house in Adelaide: the gentle, dappled morning sunlight, the sewing machine, the woman's dress and hairstyle … oh, well, Heysen was a German too: maybe it's in the genes!

The Max Beckmann room is worth a return visit all to itself. The painting that I found most poignant is the Synagogue in Frankfurt am Main. It is a disquieting work, full of leaning buildings and spiky angles, imparting a sense of anxiety and foreboding, which is only heightened by the contrast of the unruffled cat in the foreground. Beckmann's foreboding was realised when the synagogue was burnt to the ground by the Nazis in 1938.

By that time Beckmann was living in Amsterdam, having been denounced as one of the "degenerate artists" by Hitler's regime. In 1937 the Nazis mounted an exhibition of "degenerate art", comprising works confiscated from museums throughout the country. The purpose of the exhibition was to incite revulsion in the public when they saw for themselves the disgusting filth churned out by Jews, Bolshevists and perverts such as Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne and other reprobates of their ilk.

Goebbels, who arranged it all, certainly shot himself in the foot because over the four months that the show ran, three million people flocked to see it: four times the number that visited the exhibition of "decent German art" that ran simultaneously in a nearby gallery.

Several of the pictures lent to the NGV for the current show, were part of the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. My favourite one is Franz Marc's "Dog Lying in the Snow". While I can't think why the misguided pooch would want to lie in the snow rather than in his basket in front of the fire, this does not make him a debauched and disgusting sight by any normal standards! The Nazis were a weird lot and we are well rid of them, if you want my opinion.

Another strange business is the double portrait by Max Beckmann. It is discreetly just called "Double Portrait". It started out being a portrait of Frau Swarzenski, who was the wife of the then Director of the Städel Museum. For reasons best known to himself, Beckmann saw fit to add a portrait of the Director's 18-year old mistress, Carola Netter. On completion of the painting, Herr Swarzenski sensibly thought better of taking it home and instead donated it to the Städel collection.

You'd think that one day at the breakfast table Frau Swarzenski would say: "By the way, Hans, when are we getting that portrait that I sat for?" Why didn't he donate it to some other museum, preferably one safely across the Atlantic in the USA? Surely hanging it at his local was just staving off the inevitable? And even if Herr Direktor managed to stall his Frau's inquiries, what did do when they held a fund-raiser at the gallery and she accompanied him in her best tiara to schmooze the wealthy patrons? Hide the double portrait behind a Courbet winter scene?

Life is full of interesting little conundrums if you hang out at art galleries.