Gifts in Munich
By Elizabeth Lopeman
depictions of women: 24
depictions of breasts: 22
depictions of female genitals: 11
depictions of lipsticked lips: 23
depictions of eyes: 3 (all closed)
Generally speaking, I like Pop art, and I certainly don't have a problem with nudes, but if blondes, redheads, and brunettes have tits, snatch, and lusty lips, seems to me they should have eyes. If eyes are the window to the soul, then...never mind. One of the benefits of said trip was its power to stir an overwhelming urge to experience great expenditures of soulfully applied oil paint.
The Schackgalerie in Munich, a museum owned by the Bavarian state, exclusively showcases a collection of paintings amassed by Adolf Friedrich von Schack, which he began in 1855. If I had a matchmaker, she would have advised me against my next step, which was to agree to a date at the Schackgalerie two weeks out. I didn't wait, and the date fell apart—collateral damage. But then the cloying loyalty to classicism at the Schack dizzied me, confusing my sense of the period with so many allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. And I admit I was disenchanted with the extensive collection of giant, spot-on reproductions of Titians, Raphaels, and Tintorettos that had been copied in the mid- to late-1800s—it seemed to be awfully late in the post-Columbian period for that. Break out, Herr Schack, I thought.
A mission was brewing. I stopped into the Galerie an der Pinokothek der Moderne, where I saw a show of Catalonian painter Ramon Surinyac and German painter Gerhard Rießbeck. Surinyac primarily paints mountains and mountains of trash in a photo-realism style, and Rießbeck's work is primarily of icebergs, which he has studied from vessels on scientific research excursions. Both of the artists evince an impressive economy of paint. Gorgeous. I hope to see more of these painters.
"Nordlicht," Gerhard Rießbeck.
ow I was a gypsy. I crossed the street to go to the Pinokothek der Moderne, which, I knew, would soon be closing for repairs. I'd not only read about the impending closure, I'd also observed with some regularity the hairline fissures in the spiraling rotunda stairwell and on the bookstore wall as they became crumbly rifts, predictably not ameliorable by the lengths of tape applied to them. It's the Bacon, I thought. I'm going to write about “The Crucifixion”—a tremendous triptych, each piece of which measures 197.2 x 147 cm, featuring all of the expected grotesqueries found in a Francis Bacon via his painterly style, which is consistently so sublime as to override any impulse to shrink from the violence. Closed until September.
At the Wesselmann show [pictured at right: "Nude Painting Print," Tom Wesselmann, 1980] I had bumped into an acquaintance who is an economics grad student in Vienna. He asked me if I liked the work. In keeping with pleasantries, I looked around and stated the fact that the female forms were without eyes—okay, a few had closed eyes. The cheap objectification, framed between clean, popping, colorful lines with subjects who had no power of sight felt oppressive, but I didn't say that. My friend, Max, chalked it up to modern art and explained that he preferred the Neue Pinokothek, the museum that housed the Bavarian State's collection of paintings and sculptures spanning the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I wasn't surprised—I knew he had a background in history. Upon finding the Pinokothek der Moderne closed it was now so obvious. Max had pointed me to the Neue days before, and though I'd been there a number of times, I hadn't on those occasions been hungering for liberally administered oil paint the way I now was. I went.
erdinand Hodler's “Landscape on Lake Geneva,” painted in 1906, marks a decided departure from Impressionism, but with its influence intact. The painting stuns with its clear, true greens of the hills, deep blues of the lake, sky and snow-flocked mountains, and its thread of a road along the water leading to and away from a tiny shimmering village that is so inviting you begin to walk into the work. Clean. And of course Monet's Nympheas, and of course the mastery of the Van Goghs. And then there was Lovis Corinth's painting, “Fisherman's Cemetery in Nidden on the Kurische Nehrung,” with its softly muted grays, pine-greens, and pale blues that simultaneously induce and soothe sadness, which somehow helps the gentleness of the breeze against the sails of the boats on the sea, while the shadowy, though clearly reverent, man and boy face up the incline at the headstones.
"Frau mit Geißen in den Dünen," Max Liebermann, 1890.
Max Liebermann's “Frau mit Geißen in den Dünen” (“Woman With Goats in the Dunes”), painted in 1890, measures 172.5 x 127 cm and hangs by itself on the wall adjacent to the Corinth painting. As the title states, the painting is of a woman and two goats in Holland, and is a placid meditation, with dusty green dunes against the warmth of the woman's umber-colored dress. Liebermann has drafted a tension along the line of the woman's arm and through the goat's halter as the animal strains away from her in the direction of the viewer, his horns pointing back toward the vanishing point on the horizon. The broad, paint-laden brushstrokes across the dunes and in the pale blue-white sky articulate a moderate wind that twists the woman's skirt and pinafore, and the paint is so richly applied along the spines of the goats as to create tufts of nearly impasto hair. The second goat keeps with the woman, its head slightly lowered, and the two of them appear to be resigned and heading homeward while the other goat impedes their progress. Liebermann's deft strokes and eye for subtlety deliver a rare grace.
In the introduction to his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde writes:
That art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received...The spirit of an artist's gifts can wake our own. The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition...We feel fortunate, even redeemed...a gift revives the soul. When we are moved by art we are grateful that the artist lived, grateful that he labored in the service of his gifts.
“Frau mit Geißen in den Dünen” made me feel like the recipient of a small, quiet gift (in spite of its largeness). It's what I found lacking in the Wesselmanns. Max Liebermann was born to a prominent textile family in Berlin in 1847. He first studied chemistry and then went to Weimar to study art, though his ardent interest in painting led him to the Montmartre in Paris, where he set up a studio, and then on to study in Barbizon, where he was of course influenced by the Barbizon School. In 1875, Liebermann went to Holland. He spent three months in Zandvoort and then worked in Haarlem. He returned to the Netherlands many times throughout his life, and some of his most important work was produced there. Liebermann met the famous Munich portraitist, Franz von Lenbach, in Venice, and was invited to stay with him there for three months, after which Lieberman settled in Munich and joined the Munich School of painters. He eventually returned to Berlin, where he headed the Prussian Academy of Arts. In 1933, Liebermann submitted to a forced resignation under the Nazis and withdrew to his home, where he died two years later. Liebermann brought me back to an old love of painting and an appreciation for serenity and simplicity of subject matter. I'm quite grateful.