In 2012, the year of its tenth anniversary, the Pinakothek der Moderne (Munich, Germany) has chosen the theme of Women in the works of three key artists of the 20th century: Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann and Willem de Kooning, Carla Schuöz-Hoffmann, curator of the exhibition, walk us through the work of thes great masters.
1. Can you explain the process of gathering the materials and information for this exhibit?
Based on the rich sources of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, including one of the largest Max Beckmann holdings worldwide, great research possibilities as well as an internationally acclaimed conservatory department and my long time involvement with Modern Art, I started presenting my concept of the show together with the paintings I wanted as loans to the owners (museums and private collectors all over the world). Of course this needed a lot of travelling as you normally cannot persuade anyone of the impact of a show only by mail. Regarding private owners, this more than once needed a great deal of detective work and good luck as it usually is difficult to find the whereabouts of a special work in question. As we have a next to zero budget this “loan hunt” goes together with a time consuming, engaging and often more than exciting and stressful fundraising campaign which – in our case – normally is a “one person” performance as we don’t have a department of its own for this.
2. How long was this show in the making?
Even though I have been thinking of this project for next to a decade the real work started in early 2008.
3. Can you walk us through the five chapters of the exhibition? What are the main highlights?
Portrait, type, idol
This chapter introduces the tradition of western portrait in the images of Pablo Picasso and Max Beckmann. The women appear as independent, strong characters that are subordinate to neither past nor present clichés of femininity.
The vehemence of de Kooning's painting technique shows how he develops the motif with his own personal pictorial language. Contemporary "clichés" such as
cheerleader photos or magazine beauties often serve as the starting point for his Women.
Harmony, tranquillity, oblivion
This chapter deals with women as oblivious beauties, a theme that is a leitmotif throughout art history. Picasso's relationship to this long tradition is divided: sometimes he swears by antiquity, sometimes he is driven by ironic distance to the canvas; then he reinterprets the classic seated nude in a surrealist or angular late-cubist frame. In Beckmann's imagery there are frequently women who radiate a confident, mature eroticism. When the main themes of de Kooning's oeuvres of "figurative" and "landscape" fuse together a different kind of peace is conveyed, one that can be most accurately described as a state of harmonious equilibrium: then an exquisite texture of pure painting is laid across the canvas in a restrained furore of colour.
Passion, ecstasy, exuberance
Women in the work of Picasso, Beckmann and de Kooning often reflect the full depth and contradictoriness of passion. Those portrayed move between oblivion and self-destruction. Some are sensual and full of abandon, their erotic presence fills the pictorial space. Some are tender and playful, while others are ecstatic. Are the women being presented to the viewer or are they presenting themselves? They often appear to be overacting or contorted and are occasionally even shown in degrading poses.
Passion in all its manifestation is expressed in Willem de Kooning's impulsive figures of women, which are depicted as beyond individualism and detached from conventional concepts of beauty.
Mirror image or antithesis, promise or threat
In Picasso's work women are equal and part of a whole: artists and models, lovers and their loved ones, and musketeers and courtesans only make a coherent whole as a pair that supplement, complement and mutually enhance each other.
In Beckmann's work there is often a direct confrontation of the male and female that is based on the woman as power, myth or erotic being with a strong aura, while the man appears numb, lifeless or hiding.
Willem de Kooning finally disassociates himself from individual portraits: he creates mirror images of existential experiences and emotions. Gender-specific differences become blurred.
World image, time image, self-image
For Picasso the images of his companions are often the starting point for a re-shaping into the universal. In the images from the time of the Second World War, we still recognise the very expressive physiognomy of Dora Maar; but beyond this they give a face to an entire epoch's despair and will to resist.
In Beckmann's work, history is primarily reflected in self portraits; his depictions of women on the other hand are often conferred with a remote sovereignty and, whether goddess or slave, given an aura of inviolability. In de Kooning's work, the image of women can simultaneously reference an archetype of civilisation such as the Venus of Willendorf and be inspired by pornographic graffiti.
4. The exhibition explores the different approaches of Picasso, Beckmann and de Kooning to the image of the woman. Could you compare and contrast those artistic approaches? What are the main similarities and differences?
If I had to sum up how these artists engage with the theme of women in their work, I would say that the line of development takes us from Beckmann’s depiction of man and woman as complementary opposites to Picasso’s countless pictures of women as a reflection of his own subjective interpretation of the world to the dissolution of all contrasts in de Kooning. The latter’s assertion, “I paint the woman in me means no more, and no less, then that what concerns him ultimately is that total sensory perception that does not accept any categorical differences in the work of art.
5.“Even today we still find the works of these three artists provocative” Why do you think so?
All three artists contradict conventional notions of female beauty, in their own way. These are not women who would count as beautiful in an age obsessed with self-styling and media-generated clichés of perfection. Yet their ongoing violation of taboos is also what makes them so disconcertingly powerful. The women in the paintings of these artists are beautiful because they refuse to put up the same perfect front all the time, because they are both palpable and vulnerable, because they are equals who by virtue of their undeniable imperfections, their doubts, their anxieties, as well as their extraordinary sensuality and strength demand, and deserve, to be taken seriously..
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