Approximately 45 paintings by Max Liebermann (1847–1935)—the majority of which have never been seen by an American audience—will highlight stylistic changes in Liebermann’s art, as he introduced modernism to Germany and became one of his country’s most renowned cultural figures.
Max Liebermann (1847–1935) was one of Germany’s most renowned cultural figures. His dominant presence was particularly evident at the turn of the last century, first with his naturalist painting of common workers, which gained him immediate notoriety, and soon thereafter as he introduced modern (mostly French) art to Germany. “As both painter and collector,” as Mason Klein has noted, “he helped bring German art into the 20th century.” Yet, much of his work is not familiar to American audiences.
The Jewish Museum presents a retrospective of approximately 45 of Max Liebermann’s paintings organized by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. This presentation follows the debut of Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism at the Skirball Cultural Center.
The goal of the Jewish Museum’s presentation of the exhibition, coordinated by Mr. Klein, who is associate curator of fine arts at the Museum, is to understand better how Liebermann’s Jewish identity informed his aesthetic choices. “While Liebermann,” Klein notes, “has long been thought to represent the first generation of emancipated Jewish artists in Germany, his art does reflect his equivocal status in German society as a Jew.”
The exhibition examines the relationship between stylistic changes in Liebermann’s art and the changing social and political climate in which the artist lived and worked. German-French antipathy, which came to a head militarily in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) is one example; as a Francophile, he had to combat anti-French bias throughout this period. Another key development was the creation of a unified Germany in 1871, in which a new constitution emancipated Jews and gave them full rights as German citizens. Klein asserts that Liebermann, as a member of a wealthy Berlin Jewish family, exemplified his social class and its embrace of Bildung, or high culture. Writing in the catalogue produced for the Skirball show, Klein identifies a driving force in Liebermann’s life: “The preservation of these [bourgeois] ideals was more real to him than religion. It also underlay the aesthetic and ideological contradictions inherent in his work—his dream of assimilation and his quest for artistic independence in the name of individualism.”
The show features a celebrated painting, The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple (1879). It is one of the few Liebermann works focusing on a religious subject, and the painting provoked a controversy: it was debated in the Bavarian Parliament and condemned as blasphemous and anti-Christian. Liebermann’s reaction to the uproar was to alter the painting, transforming an objectionable “too Jewish looking” Jesus into an Aryan depiction more characteristic of contemporary German tastes. This painting has never been seen before in the United States and was not included in the Skirball show.
The first exhibition on Liebermann in the United States, this retrospective conveys the breadth of the artist’s output. After creating what Klein terms a “hybrid naturalism” in the 1880s—in which he produced idealized paintings of community, work and the social collective—Liebermann moved from the early 1890s toward Impressionism. Now he chose to portray leisure scenes from his social class: strolling in the park, sitting in cafés, horseback riding or playing tennis.
In 1898, Liebermann was elected president of the Berlin Secession, an artists’ association promoting modern art and formed as an alternative to conservative exhibition and patronage policies. As its leader, Liebermann was responsible in great part for introducing Impressionism to Germany. “In many ways,” Klein asserts, “he worked to break down the repressive cultural standards of his time.”
The exhibition also incorporates self-portraits; from 1902 until the year of his death in 1935, Liebermann created 46 of them. Suzanne Schwarz Zuber, who created a comprehensive chronology for the Skirball catalogue, comments that in choosing himself so often as subject, Liebermann sought “to validate himself, solidifying his position in German society, despite constant reminders that he would never lose the stigma of ethnic difference.”
The show concludes with impressionistic scenes of Liebermann’s garden at Wannsee.
Liebermann received scathing criticism throughout his career. In his early Naturalist phase, when his paintings focused on working people and conferred upon them an unprecedented dignity, he shocked some audiences and was called a “painter of filth” and an “apostle of ugliness.” He was frequently attacked as a promoter of Impressionism; in 1905, he was vilified as “anti-national.” Yet, by the end of his career, the artist had been accorded honor after honor, culminating in his election as president of the Prussian Academy of Arts. The rise of the Third Reich ended his career, and forced him to awaken from what he termed a “beautiful dream of assimilation.”