Sunday, September 5, 2010

Max Beckmann's Five Women

El Greco, The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St John), 1608-14

"Oh, this infinite space! We must constantly fill up the foreground with junk so that we do not have to look in its frightening depth. What would we poor people do, if we would not always come up with some idea like country, love, art, and religion with which we can again and again cover up that dark black whole." (Max Beckmann, Letter, May 24, 1915)

 Max Beckmann, Still Life with Gramophone and Irises, 1924

The above still-life is a painting from Beckmann's first Frankfurt years made in the spring of 1924. It is the first in an important series of mysterious and complex allegorical still-life paintings that Beckmann was to make throughout his career. At the right of the painting, we see a woman's face wearing a carnival mask. This figure is a disguised portrait of Naila - the mysterious woman known as Dr. Hildegard Melms with whom Beckmann had an affair in 1923 and whom he later painted in his 1935 portrait of the five most beautiful women in his life, Five Women (Large Women Painting). For a long time her identity was unknown, although she appeared frequently on Beckmann etchings during the 1920s. 

 Max Beckmann, Sleeper, 1924

Also in 1924, Beckmann's sixteen year-long marriage to his first wife, Minna Tube, was disintegrating - as his affair with Naila indicated. At the same time Beckmann had met in Vienna the young violinist Mathilde "Quappi" von Kaulbach, daughter of the Munich painter Friedrich August von Kaulbach. This vivacious young woman would become the love of Beckmann's life , and he was to marry her after a second visit to Vienna the following year. Beckmann must have been pretty much confused (or distracted) that year: In the above painting, Sleeper, he mounted the face of a sleeping Quappi on Minna Tube's curvacious body.

Max Beckmann, Portrait Minna Beckmann-Tube, 1924

Max Beckmann and Minna Tube had first met each other in 1902 at the Großherzogliche Kunstschule zu Weimar (Grand Ducal Art School at Weimar), which only just then had begun to admit women. A young woman who studied art at the turn of the century, as this daughter of a military priest, had her own head. Beckmann once noted to "never have completely possessed her" was a "huge imposition" for him. The price he demanded when they married in 1906 was, from today's perspective, outrageous: Minna had to give  up painting. However, she began immediately a vocal training, and later had a respectable career as an opera singer.

 Minna Beckmann-Tube as Venus in Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser, Dessau 1916
Until 1913 Beckmann signed virtually all his work with the code MBSL (Max Beckmann Seiner Liebsten = Max Beckmann to his Dearest). After the end of their marriage in 1924, they stayed in close contact, which can be explained by their son Peter, but also by the fact that Minna remained a trusted advisor and respected authority in matters of art. Beckmann's explicit condition before his marriage to Quappi in the same year was that he could continue to see his first wife, and could travel with her as well.

Max Beckmann, Five Women, 1935

Five women - probably not the only, but the most important in Beckmann's life, who, if we believe contemporary accounts, liked to present himself as a successful womanizer. The five ladies mostly knew each other, but to rally around all five in one place - that even a Beckmann could only manage by imagination. With a deeply slit back décolleté, Lilly von Schnitzler stands on the left side. Her blonde hair, the yolk-yellow robe, and the ermine bluntly show her position: The wife of the president of I.G. Farben, Georg von Schnitzler, (convicted as a war criminal in 1948) was the society lady par excellence. Whether she ever had an intimate relationship with Beckmann is uncertain. In any case, the aristocrat was attracted to Beckmann and built up a collection of his paintings that she later donated to the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne. She even invited Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in order to convince him of Beckmann's genius - the attempt was to no avail.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Five Women on the Street, 1913

The large woman standing to the right of Lilly von Schnitzler, showing a somehow brittle and dry impression, is Katharine Rapoport von Porada, for some observers "the most beautiful woman in Berlin". Beckmann had first met her in 1922 in Frankfurt. She wrote fashion articles for the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung. In 1926, Katharine moved to Paris, where she organized exhibitions that contributed significantly to Beckmann's fame. No coincidence that Quappi confidently stands in the middle with a fan. The sensual and elegant woman actually was the center for Max Beckmann. Finally, standing on Quappi's right, an angry looking Naila seems to direct with her left hand the rivals to the exit door.

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, 1927

But Beckmann also portrayed himself in the picture - hidden in the mirror, that Minna Beckmann-Tube is showing towards the viewer. However, not the mature artist, a man in his early fifties, is reflected, not the familiar angular Beckmann-head, but the round face of the young man that was seen on a photo of his first wedding banquet. This could well be a self-ironic reference to the Judgement of Paris motif: When Zeus held a banquet, Eris, goddess of discord, was uninvited. Angered by this snub, Eris threw a golden apple (the Apple of Discord) into the proceedings, upon which was the inscription καλλίστῃ ("for the fairest one"). Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest, and eventually Zeus, reluctant to favour any claim himself, declared that Paris, a mortal, would judge their cases, for he had recently shown his exemplary fairness in a contest with the god of warfare, Ares.

 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The Judgement of Paris, 1913

After Beckmann's death in 1950 in New York (the last two words in his notebook were: "Quappi angry."), Five Women remained in the possession of Quappi until she sold it in 1963 through a New York gallery to the private Spiro Collection. Why did Quappi show the image so late to the public - in 1963, at its first and only exhibition in Karlsruhe? Probably, the widow did not handle well the fact, that five women were seen, lined up in stately pose (few things recall the exuberance of a "party" as the Americans casually dubbed the image).

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907

With this great painting Beckmann not only built a monument for five of his wives, lovers and friends, but, as one art critic slyly remarked, also established a reference to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. That would not be very charming: Picasso's famous ladies get-together took place in a brothel on Avinyó Street in Barcelona.


  1. Excellent blog. I'm very pleased to have found it. Where is the 'Five Women' painting now?
    Gruß, Karin (Risaprofana).

  2. Thanks for your interest, dear Karin. The "Five Women" were auctioned at Philips de Pury on June 24th this year to an unknown collector. The price estimate was around 10 Million Euros, 2 Million per lady. Not bad.

  3. This is an extremely lovely and amusing note... Thanks (posted it to my tumblr blog

  4. Great post, but where did you find this information about the Five Women painting? I'm writing an essay on it and would love to find some more literary sources