In Max Liebermann, the representative of the bourgeois age is revered, the longtime president of the Academy of Arts, familiar with the greats of his time, such as Thomas Mann, who appreciated Liebermann’s Berlin accent.
But Liebermann was already 53 when the new 20th century dawned. He had had to fight hard for his artistic position. It was only the moderate Impressionism, schooled on the French model, which he cultivated as a mature man, that fitted in perfectly with his lifestyle, especially in 1910 when he moved into the villa on Wannsee, whose colorful garden he constantly painted.
The 175th birthday of the painter, who was born in 1847, on July 20 may not be a very special anniversary, but it is an occasion to remember his art. Two exhibitions form the framework, in the Wannsee villa an extract of the Dutch motifs in his work, in the Old National Gallery a good part of the inventory that the house keeps.
13 paintings – out of a total of 22 – show the range of Liebermann’s oeuvre, from the social realism of the student years to the shimmering impressionism as well as the strict portrait painting of the late work. The former are represented by the “Gänserupferinnen”, which the 24-year-old painted in 1871 and thus took a direction that earned him the nickname “Apostle of Ugliness”, for the latter the wonderfully summer-scented “Garden Bench” from 1916, but also the “Garden Bench” from 1916, which was surrounded by melancholy of old age. Self-Portrait at the Easel” from 1925.
Ralph Gleis, who was recently appointed interim director of the Alte Nationalgalerie, is trying to break new ground with the cabinet exhibition. Different people, from the supervisor to the film actor, chose a favorite picture and explained their choice in short statements – which can be accessed in the museum via a QR code next to the picture caption. The Alte Nationalgalerie is thus tapping the technical potential that almost every visitor has in their hands anyway, the smartphone. In addition, illustrations of the works plus a short text are available in a brochure.
A comprehensive exhibition was not up for discussion, because next summer the three artists’ associations from around 1900 in Berlin, Munich and Vienna, each of which operated under the name “Secession” and declared their separation from the official art scene, are to be presented, with their protagonists at the top Liebermann, Franz von Stuck and Gustav Klimt.
Liebermann, who enjoys such popularity in today’s Berlin, wasn’t always in the public eye as a matter of course. In 1979, the Neue Nationalgalerie in West Berlin organized the largest Liebermann retrospective to date, with around 500 catalog numbers (not exclusively works by Liebermann) and the statement in the foreword that “this important artist (…) is almost forgotten today”.
Fortunately, this has been thoroughly revised, and one can judge from it what has been achieved since then; Last but not least, the Brandenburg Gate Foundation, which resides in the artist’s town house, which was rebuilt in a similar form, is now once again commemorating Liebermann with a program of events.
Read at Tagesspiegel Plus: Noordwijk on Max Liebermann’s footsteps
And the Villa am Wannsee in particular has become a natural place, a destination that goes beyond the artistic work of its former owner and gives an idea of the social life of an age irretrievably destroyed by the Nazis.
An important, sometimes overlooked chapter in Liebermann’s life and work is currently being unfolded: his visits to Holland, most notably to the North Sea resort of Noordwijk. A dozen works, with the exception of one landscape from the National Gallery’s holdings, were accepted for the exhibition “Coast in Sight! Max Liebermann in Noordwijk” from a private collection; still, yes more than ever, Liebermann is a painter for lovers.
As fragrantly bright as the beach views appear, Liebermann has not committed himself to that; sometimes there is also a heavy sky over the dunes, as in the “Landscape near Noordwijk” from 1907, which is based on old Dutch painting. The small-format studies are absolutely captivating, where two or three strokes of pastel chalk are enough to indicate the edge of the beach or the crest of a wave.
You want to see more of this painting, always more! But only a look at the Old National Gallery shows that Liebermann is so much more than a chronicler of cheerful summer holidays. And that courage and steadfastness were necessary to paint a large format like the two and a half meter wide “Flachsscheuer in Laren” from 1887: as a sober description of arduous work and at the same time as a magnificent painting of light and darkness. This picture, like so many others, goes back to a trip to Holland.