Jewish Journal

‘Apostle of the Ugly’ Outlasts Nazis, Gets His Due

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Sep. 8, 2005 at 8:00 pm

For 40 years, painter Max Liebermann was the premier artist of Berlin, a cultural icon and pioneer in his native land, and the pride of the Jewish community in Germany.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Liebermann became officially a nonperson -- and when he died two years later at the age of 87, the controlled Nazi press ignored his death and accomplishments.

The Skirball Cultural Center, in the most ambitious artistic project in its nine-year history, will present the first American survey of the painter's life and works in "Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism."

The exhibit opens Sept. 15 and continues through Jan. 29, 2006, after which it will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York.

Born into a wealthy German Jewish family in 1847, Liebermann spent a lengthy apprenticeship in German art academies and travels to Holland, and scored his initial success with his realist paintings of Dutch peasants and workers, particularly his "Women Plucking Geese" in 1872.

His depictions of life among the poor won praise for their skillful technique, but were denounced by hidebound critics who dubbed him "the apostle of the ugly."

He followed the next year with "Self-portrait With Kitchen Still Life," the only one of his many self-portraits in which Liebermann, posing as a kitchen chef, ventured a half-smile.

Keen viewers will spot a kosher seal attached to the chicken on the kitchen table.

In the 1880s, Liebermann started his large collection of French impressionist paintings by Manet, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro. He himself began to experiment with a looser, spontaneous impressionist style, a move denounced as "anti-German" by some critics.

He perfected this style over the next decades, especially in lovely paintings of beach scenes with tennis players, bathers and a pensive portrait of his wife Martha (who committed suicide in Berlin in 1943, after receiving her deportation orders for Theresienstadt).

Liebermann rarely used Jewish themes in his paintings, perhaps discouraged by the reception of his 1879 drawing, "The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple," debating a group of rabbis. The young Jesus was originally portrayed as a scruffy, unkempt boy with gesticulating hands and a distinctively Semitic nose. The painting elicited howls of outrage that a painter, and a Jew at that, would depict Jesus in such an unflattering manner. As a result of the attacks, Liebermann cleaned up his act by changing the painting to show the young Jesus in a clean white robe and with an "Aryanized" nose.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Liebermann emerged as the leader of the German avant garde as president of the Berlin Secession, which promoted modernist German art rejected by most official museums and galleries, and works by French impressionist and post-impressionist artists. Around this time, he painted "Parrotman at the Amsterdam Zoo," considered by many as his greatest impressionist work.

With the outbreak of World War I, Liebermann joined in his countrymen's patriotic fervor, even suggesting in a letter that "war seems to be necessary to curb the excessive materialism of peacetime."

He contributed for two years to the "Wartime Art Pages," which featured heroic portraits of the kaiser and advancing German soldiers, but he also sketched the Kishinev pogrom, inscribed, "To my dear Jews."

With the end of the war, Liebermann again explored new avenues. He became a highly regarded and well-paid portrait artist, whose sitters included Albert Einstein, Richard Strauss and German President Paul von Hindenburg.

At the same time, as the Weimar Republic brought a brief interlude of liberalism to Germany, Liebermann reached the apogee of his influence.

Wrote one historian, "During the Weimar Republic, Liebermann embodied the artistic and intellectual establishment like no other person in Germany."

However, with advancing age, Liebermann retreated increasingly to his spacious villa in the Berlin suburb of Wansee, growing and painting flower and vegetable beds, and, toward the end of his life, concentrating on intimate family scenes. A 1932 photo shows Liebermann, aged and leaning on a cane, leaving a polling station, with a Hitler poster in the background.

Liebermann hardly fit the image of the bohemian, hard-drinking and loving artist. He was a devoted family man, and, even when painting at a beach, always wore a well-cut suit, tie and hat.

"In my daily habits," he said, "I am completely bourgeois. I eat, drink, sleep and go for walks with the regularity of a church clock."

His sober habits yielded some 1,500 paintings, studies and drawings during his long life, of which about one-third disappeared during the Nazi regime and World War II.

In addition, he was a prolific and conscientious correspondent, writing thousands of letters. In one, he characterized himself as "an inveterate Jew, who otherwise feels like a German," and most of his life he was able to combine and balance the two loyalties.

As late as 1931, he wrote to Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff, "Art knows neither political nor religious boundaries ... although I have felt as a German throughout my whole life, my kinship to the Jewish people is no less alive in me."

But three years later, responding to an appeal for support of a Zionist youth group, Liebermann observed:

"We have only awakened now from the beautiful dream of assimilation.... I am too old to emigrate, but for the Jewish youth there is no salvation but to leave for Palestine, where they can live as a free people."

Liebermann was "squarely in the tradition of Jews shaped by German culture and language," who have made enormous contributions to the arts and knowledge, noted Dr. Uri Herscher, president and CEO of the Skirball Center.

Included, he said, are such names as Martin Buber, Einstein, Lion Feuchtwanger, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Otto Klemperer, Gustav Mahler, Jacques Offenbach, Leon Panofsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill.

Senior Curator Barbara Gilbert spent eight years in preparation for the exhibit, researching Liebermann's life, tracking his works across Europe, and persuading museums and private collectors to lend some 70 paintings and drawings for the Skirball exhibit.

"We are trying to introduce the American public to the art of Max Liebermann, as well as to illustrate the politics of art," Gilbert said. "Art became quite politicized during Liebermann's lifetime and he used his position to speak out for the equality and broad inclusiveness of art."

Underlining the point, museum director Lori Starr observed, "This unprecedented exhibition rediscovers Liebermann and illuminates how he leveraged his artistic talent and position in the Berlin art world to promote social change and campaign tirelessly against censorship, intolerance and injustice at a time when Nazism presented grave dangers."

Accompanying the exhibit will be a series of concerts, lectures, workshops, family programs, German silent film screenings, courses in drawing and painting, an introductory video and a 220-page catalogue with 150 color images.

For information, call (310) 440-4500, or visit www.skirball.org.


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