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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Beckmann’s World

The Harvard Art Museums have disappointed me again. Harvard has an impressive collection, comparable to the MFA, and one of the largest collections of Asian art in the area. Yet every special exhibition I’ve been to this year has failed to meet even my barest expectations. In the immortal words of Stephen Colbert, “Harvard, You’re on Notice!”

Max Beckmann was a German artist and art professor whose history spans from the Weimar Republic in Germany (1919-1933) to his death in New York (1950). Beckmann was considered an expressionist (even though he rejected the movement) and later identified as a part of the New Objectivity Movement, an offshoot of Expressionism. Beckmann’s use of bright colors contrasts the somber moods represented in many of his works. His combination of free-form painting and linear techniques gives his images a slightly abstract look, with faces standing out while bodies and other forms resemble geometric shapes.

The paintings on display at Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum, while excellent examples of Beckmann’s work, are few in number. I had expected that at the very least Beckmann would have a gallery dedicated solely to his work. However, Beckmann’s works shared a room with many other artists. I could overlook the shared space of his work with others’, but Beckmann’s pieces were mixed amongst other works of other artists. Also, the only self-portrait they had on display was in an entirely different room. Beckmann: my heart goes out to you, being marginalized in this way by Harvard.

In all, there are six works by Beckmann on display, a mix of paintings and bronze. Unfortunately, there is no explanation accompanying the bronze discussing the piece’s history, only identifying the artist, date and title. Nowhere in the exhibit is Beckmann’s work as a sculptor discussed. Of the paintings on display, the most prominent and interesting one is “Women with Mandolin in Yellow and Red” (this piece is based off the imagery of ‘Leda and the Swan,’ a popular subject in paintings featuring the Greek god Zeus transformed into a swan to seduce Leda).

Beckmann’s sculpture, “Adam and Eve,” in my opinion, deserved a much larger placard than it received. In all my experience with images depicting this ancient religious pair, I have never seen anything like Beckmann’s portrayal. The figure of Adam is seated cradling the tiny figure of a woman (Eve) to his chest with one hand while a serpent winds itself around him. This is the first image I have seen showing Adam being protective of Eve in this way, but what I found rather interesting was the way Adam was associated with the snake. In every medieval and Renaissance image of Adam and Eve the serpent is always associated with Eve and never with Adam. For this reason, it was the only piece I kept returning to throughout my viewing of Beckman’s work.

Max Beckman was a good artist with a very interesting history, having been banned from teaching by the Nazis and having his work incorporated as a large part of their exhibition of “Degenerate Art,” resulting in his fleeing to America. If you’re interested in German Expressionism or New Objectivity, then check out Beckmann at Harvard. If you only have a passing interest you may be better off skipping it or waiting until you have a day when you can visit all the Harvard museums (admission to one museum gets you into all of them). While not the type of work I’m particularly into, Beckmann is good nonetheless.