An Imaginary Museum

The museum can be a pretty lonely place sometimes, especially if you’re just going to hang out by yourself and check out an exhibit. That’s why I usually don’t go to museums unless someone’s in town wants to go or something like that. You just need to be in the right mood. I’m not sure I was in the right mood the other day when I went to check out Max Beckmann’s “Hell” exhibit, which was on display at the Met until August 31st, 2003.

I just didn’t have the kind of focus you need to go do a museum right. I got there, slipped into the main building, passed the security guard and didn’t end up paying anything, which, if you’re more poor than rich, is the way to go about things. I knew from research that I had to go to the south wing or something like that, but when you walk into the Met without focus, you get lost. Really the building, what with the architecture and then the ancient sculptures and such, works as a pretty fantastic work of art in and of itself. I found myself wandering up and down the halls. Into rooms and out of rooms. I wasn’t looking at the art – the individual works – this happens to me every time I go to the Met – and it never puts me in the right mood to sit down and observe a picture. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done that – sat down on one of those benches and observed a picture for a long period of time. I know you’re supposed to, and that people get a whole lot out of the artwork doing it, but I never have the patience. I like to wander around museums the way I’d want to wander around an old castle or something – just mazing my way through an old, elegant landscape of relics. But today I was planning to sit down and take in Beckmann’s “Hell” lithographs. I wasn’t in the mood, no; but I had a story to write, and while usually I’d just can the story and come up with a new one, I’d already printed up August’s cover – so there was no turning back.

I worked my way through the Greek and Roman Art – straight into the bar and cafeteria. It’s a pretty drastic change, but it works because it snaps you out of your wandertrance and reminds you that you’re here for a purpose. Right. Max Beckmann. I stopped at the bar and had a Beck’s and moved on. It wasn’t the right thing to do to have that beer, but that’s how it happened. Besides, it was just one.

After the bar I went through the African and Asian Art gallery, which put me right back in wandertrance; the trance now decidedly deepened by the Beck’s effects. I went through that wing without really seeing a single piece – or anything at all for that matter. I was walking slow, and I felt like I was absorbing everything, but when I went through the doorway everything vanished into the twentieth century.

It was a pretty busy Sunday at the Met, especially in the Twentieth Century Room – or however it’s called. Beckmann, apparently, was directly upstairs from there, so I pushed my way through the crowd and headed up to check out Beckmann’s “Hell” lithographs.

I have to say, it wasn’t the most popular attraction in the museum that afternoon. There was only one person spending any time with the exhibit; everyone else just breezed right through. The person sitting there taking in the overwhelming black and white lithographs was a very skinny, very pale young lady, maybe twenty eight or twenty nine. She had a mop of curly black hair and was wearing faded blue jeans and a tee-shirt. She was really into the lithographs – like you see sometimes in Museums – people sitting there with a book open – looking, writing and sketching. She was doing all three.

It was kind of uncomfortable. I’d been hoping either no one would be bothering with the exhibit – or there’d be a crowd – either way, so long as I got to remain innocuous. But there wasn’t any way around it. I sat down on a separate bench, opened up my notebook – and looked.

There are eleven lithographs total in Beckmann’s series, all of them black and white, and all of them disturbing. I did a little research on Beckmann before coming out to the Met. Just the basic stuff – a quick online Bio – a little bit of background information about the lithographs. Apparently Beckmann worked as a medic in World War I, and during that time he saw the atrocities that inspired these prints. The prints are dark, chaotic and powerful. The way I understand it (and I could be wrong) is that Beckmann had a nervous breakdown while working as a medic in World War I. After he recovered, his art made a drastic change from Impressionism to the more reality based constructions that you see in the “Hell” lithographs. But I’m not sure Realism is the right term for what he’s doing. For example, you can see some early Impressionistic influences in this work – and also an element of Cubism, where his characters seem to be uncomfortable in the space they occupy.

Let me stop right here and admit something. I’m no good at talking about the visual arts. In fact, I’m not sure why I decided to write on a painter to begin with – especially one I know almost nothing about. I think I was just testing myself to see if I could do it. The truth is I can’t. I can say if I liked it or not; but that’s about as far as I can go. And I liked the Max Beckmann “Hell” lithographs. But everything I just said about them I lifted from the girl who was sitting there. So I’ve admitted it. Those are her observations and not mine. Here’s how it happened:

I was sitting there looking at the pieces, feeling warm and sleepy because of that bottle of Beck’s, and sort of dreaming about when I’d be able to have another, when the girl came over and asked me if I was a big fan of Beckmann’s work. I told her I wasn’t, but that I wrote articles sometimes for a downtown magazine, and that my latest assignment was this exhibit. As it turns out of course, she was a big fan of Beckmann’s work, and she asked all these questions about the magazine, and what it published, and when, and etc… I was pleased to be able to promote Strawberry Press a little bit. But what was really great about it was that she seemed to know everything about this Beckmann character. So I just started asking her questions and let her talk. She talked about Beckmann’s early years as a softer, more impressionistic painter – like Delacroix maybe. She talked about how at twenty-six or so he was already a well-renowned painter in Germany – about his aspirations to live and work in Paris – about his long and troubled marriage to Minna Tube – how he eventually divorced her and remarried. It was really pretty informative – a lot better than the little bit of information I found online. She went on to talk about how Beckmann served as a medic in World War I, about how the atrocities he witnessed caused him to have a nervous breakdown. And when he began to work on his painting again in 1917, he came back a new artist. He developed a style that was very much all his own, and he eschewed references to movements when discussing his work. How his work made it into galleries and museums all over Germany, only to be removed and confiscated when Hitler came to power. How he was an exile from his own country after that. How his work matured. How his style in the “Hell” lithographs is apparently the beginning of the budding of his mature work.

The lithographs are unique and unsettling. They borrow technique from Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism and Classicism, but align with none of them. The girl went on to talk about how mythology and religion played a large role in his work – like the work of Expressionist Gustav Klimt. She talked about how the colors in the paintings became more intense – how they battled with each other. She explained that what was so great about these lithographs was that by working in black and white he’d achieved that same intensity of color and expression by using these two opposing colors to depict a hell that was so real it became unreal. She let me know (which at this point didn’t surprise me) that Max Beckmann was her favorite painter of all time. That she came here every Sunday afternoon – she had been coming every Sunday afternoon ever since the exhibit opened, and she would continue to come back until it closed.

I listened to what she said, and I actually took notes. I mean, she was doing all my homework for me. It was really pretty cool. But finally I had to come out and ask her: what is it about Beckmann that you find so fascinating?

Really, her answer, it was just the same thing that makes any of us fascinated by any artist: she first saw Beckmann’s work in High School while taking an art class and going through a big book on the history of Western painting. The work spoke to her right away. From then on, the more she saw Beckmann’s work and the more she learned about his life, the more she fell in love with him. I can understand that. That’s how it works with everything. She said something really memorable – I just like the ring of it: “You go through your life admiring some artists and not admiring others – and then one day a real friend comes along and changes your life.”

The way I see it, that pretty much says it all. Artists are craftsmen, thinkers, revolutionaries, whatever. But that’s beside the point. When someone really connects with an artist, it only has so much to do with how talented the artist is – there’s probably someone else that’s more talented. It’s the feeling of making a friend – finding someone who really understands you (illusory or not, I don’t think it matters) – that adds that element of what people call “magic” to art. And that magic is what makes art such a spectacular thing – art in every creative manifestation.

Anyway, she went on and on about Beckmann while I listened and took notes. After a while she laughed like, ‘are you gonna reference me in your article?’ It was pretty funny. I told her sure, why not. She could pick up a copy of the magazine at St. Mark’s Bookshop. She should check out the website. Did she have any writers she was really into? She said she read, but not all that much. Mostly when she read she liked to read mysteries and such.

Her name was Chloe. Which is just to say, there, I’ve officially referenced her. I imagine she’s at the Met right now. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon – a week later, actually. I can see her sitting in that large room with her sketchbook open, quiet, awed, reverential. She’s discoursing with a friend that died a quarter century before she was born.

The museum can be a pretty lonely place sometimes.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, August 2003)

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