Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Remembering Max Liebermann (1847-1935)

Remembering Max Liebermann (1847-1935)
by Samuel D. Gruber
Max Liebermann in his studio
Max Liebermann, Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam, (1905), from Max Liebermann from Realism to Impressionism, p. 94

In conjunction with the course I am teaching this semester at Syracuse University, "The Holocaust, Memory, and the Visual Arts" I will be posting more frequently about artist suppressed, oppressed, exiled and murdered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.  I'll also be posting more about the art of Holocaust Survivors and about Holocaust commemorative art and architecture.

Today is the anniversary of the death of the great German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935), In the first decades of the 20th century Liebermann achieved the rare status of being considered both a leading innovator and modernist in German art and also as the recognized leader of established German art institutions. In a certain sense, Liebermann lived long enough that his more "radical" and "foreign" French-inspired painting of the late 19th-century came - in the face of newer modern styles - to be seen as almost classic, and therefore widely acceptable throughout most segments of German society. As a Jew - even an extremely acculturated Jew - his fame and acclaim were unprecedented in German history. But his success did not last through his last years. 

Liebermann suffered the indignity of exclusion in his last two years - which corresponded to the beginning of the Nazi regime. His death in February 1935, however, probably spared him real suffering in the years to come. In 1940, his widow Martha Liebermann, was forced to sell their villa, where Liebermann had painted his lush impressionist landscapes for decades. Then, on March, 1943, she was notified to get ready for deportation to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Aged 85 and bedridden from a stroke, she preferred to commit suicide in the family home, Haus Liebermann where today, there is a stolperstein for her in front of the home by the Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

Max Liebermann.  12 Year Old Jesus in Temple with Scholars
Drawing (top),  Painting (below) (1879). From Max Liebermann from Realism to Impressionism p. 74
Liebermann made few works that were specifically Jewish in subject.  One of his best paintings of his early years (1879) was The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple With the Scholars, represented the boy Jesus in the Temple.  Originally, the young Jesus looked scruffy and decidedly Jewish, and the background was more a contemporary synagogue than any ancient setting. Liebermann was widely criticized by Christian critics and views for work approaching blasphemy. He redid the work with a more "Aryan" Jesus, but in the future stayed away from "controversial" subjects. Liebermann was also inspired early on by the work of his good friend the Dutch-Jewish painter Joseph Israels. Influrneced by Israels, Liebermann created several views of the crowded, colorful, Jewish markets in Amsterdam. His favoring of French and Dutch inspired Impressionism also infuriated the German nationalist cultural establishment at the turn of the 20th century.  From 1899 to 1911 Lieberman led the foremost avant-garde art group in Germany, the Berlin Secession.
Max Liebermann, View from the Tiergarten, (1900), pastel. from Berlin Metropolis, fig. 80
Max Liebermann. Samson and Delilah (1910). From Max Liebermann from Realism to Impressionism p. 77
From 1920 on, however, in a sign of how German artistic tastes had changed, Liebermann served as was president of the Prussian Academy of Arts, a position from which in an rare political act he resigned in 1933 when the academy decided to ban exhibition by Jewish artists. But he surely would soon have been removed from the position under the Nazi laws. While watching the Nazis celebrate their victory by marching through the Brandenburg Gate, Liebermann was reported to have commented: "Ich kann gar nicht soviel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte." ("I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up."). Liebermann died on February 8, 1935, at his home near the Brandenburg Gate.

Despite his fame, his death was not reported in the Nazi-controlled media and there were no representatives of the Academy of the Arts or the city at his funeral.

 Today, Liebermann is again included among the great German artists, and he is much celebrated for his cityscapes, landscapes and portraits.  On 30 April 2006 the Max Liebermann Society opened a permanent museum in the Liebermann family's villa in the Wannsee district of Berlin.

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