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A dramatic life; the work, not quite so

Max Liebermann may have been a leader in German art, yet his pieces can seem dull when compared to the tumult of the time.

September 30, 2005|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Max Liebermann lived a full and long life -- almost long enough to be stripped of all that he had accomplished. He was fortunate (if it's not too audacious to say so) to have died when he did, at home in Berlin, in 1935. In 1933, when Hitler became German chancellor, Liebermann resigned from his distinguished position as president of the Prussian Academy of Arts before he would have been forced to do so under laws restricting the rights of Jews. Another few years and Liebermann would have watched the rest of what he had worked for get snatched away: his art collection, his home, his reputation, his life.

He lived just long enough to feel the poisoned sting of National Socialist rule in its early stages and to register his disgust. After watching Nazi troops march down the boulevard Unter den Linden shortly after their rise to power, he said, "I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up."

Liebermann witnessed more than a few monumental events in German history and absorbed equally startling shifts in the world of painting in his 87 years, all from the persistently tenuous position of a German Jew. Would that his paintings matched the dynamism of his time.

The artist's first American retrospective, at Skirball Cultural Center, reveals Liebermann to be a fine painter but not a brilliant one. He was skilled from the start, picked up much from other artists along the way, and exhibited impressive vitality to the end. Among the show's 60-plus works are portraits of tremendous insight, garden paintings blooming with verve and sensitive images of men and women at work. Also scattered throughout are stiff and clumsy compositions and scenes muddy, drab or dull.

Nevertheless, "Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism" is a thoughtful and thorough effort, deftly interweaving chapters of Liebermann's life with corresponding developments in cultural and political history. The show, curated by Skirball senior curator Barbara Gilbert, travels to New York's Jewish Museum after closing here. Its excellent catalog incisively addresses key societal factors affecting Liebermann's career and influencing his reception. Two of the most profound: the vexed intersection of German and Jewish identity, and the association, prior to the emergence of native-born Expressionism, of Modernism with undesirable foreignness.

Liebermann was born in 1847 and grew up in a prosperous household, the son of a fabric manufacturer turned banker. His early art training equipped him with the standard set of technical skills as well as a special attachment to the painterly vigor of the Dutch master Frans Hals.

Liebermann maintained a deep connection to Holland after his first sojourn there in 1871. It was there, he said, that he made himself into a painter, seduced by the land and its humble people. Berlin's burgeoning urbanity registered hardly at all in his work. He favored instead images of a rustic, slower-paced life. Several of the show's most absorbing paintings originated from sketches he made of Dutch men and women quietly immersed in their tasks: making lace, weaving, sewing. The subjects' diligent attention to their craft resonates with Liebermann's own quiet, dignified practice.

An exterior scene is especially eloquent. It shows a group seated under an arched trellis at an old men's home in Amsterdam. The arbor's embrace offsets the hollowness of its tunneled passage, echoing poignantly the sense of isolation within communal comfort that comes from such group living.

Liebermann's respect for ordinary labor got a further boost from exposure to the Barbizon painters Corot and Millet, whose work he came to know during several years in Paris. By 1878 he was back in Germany for good, and well enough established to have incited a minor scandal. His painting of a Semitic-looking boy Jesus conferring with Jewish scholars (represented in the show by a related drawing) sparked debate as high up as the Bavarian parliament. Liebermann-the-accomplished-German-painter suddenly devolved into Liebermann-the-Jew, venturing onto turf where he was explicitly not welcome.

The artist's palette lightened and his brushwork loosened in the 1890s, after he became enamored of the Impressionist works in a Berlin collection and bought numerous paintings, by Manet, Monet, Degas and others. His subdued scenes of labor gave way to sprightly celebrations of leisure -- images of beer gardens, horse riders and beach-goers. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, Liebermann was given a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin, and the following year he was elected to the academy. At the same juncture, he became a leader of the Secession, an artists group asserting the freedom to exhibit independent of government-controlled organizations.

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