- Max Liebermann: Modern Art and Modern GermanyOur PickBy Marion F. Deshmukh
- Max Liebermann: Pathfinder of German SecessionistsBy Anna Louise Wangeman
Progression of Art
Women Plucking Geese
This work shows a darkened room in which several mature women pluck geese. There are baskets of feathers at their sides. A sense of stoicism permeates the room, which appears quite impoverished and dirty, with hay and feathers lying on the floor. A man is shown bringing more geese to the women and his presence adds the only hint of social interaction to the narrative on working-class rural life.
This work was Liebermann's "breakthrough" painting, though it was widely criticized and earned him the nickname "apostle of ugliness." The painting is indicative of Liebermann's preoccupation with Dutch culture having spent many summers in Holland and it considers the birth of German modernism, which took much of its influence from 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting. Liebermann's own modernist works were also strongly influenced by Dutch painters Anton Mauve and Jozef Israëls. Liebermann was fascinated with the mundanity and unassuming nature of rural life in Holland, and spent many years trying to capture its essence in his paintings. However, this work does not capture the serenity that Liebermann must have felt in the Dutch countryside. In fact, the work has a certain lackluster quality; the women working appear overworked and tired. Perhaps Liebermann sought to elucidate the cyclical and unforgiving nature of manual labor, which was undertaken out of necessity. His fascination with such a lifestyle displayed his early affection for a socially conscious aesthetic.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Berlin
Self-Portrait in Kitchen with Still-Life
This work portrays Liebermann himself (in a chef's cap) smiling over a group of cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms, carrots, leeks, potatoes and a dead chicken. On the left of the frame sits a large copper pot while the leafy greens are in a large wicker basket covered with a cloth. This work is significantly darker than some of Liebermann's other early paintings given that the background is almost completely black.
There are several symbolic connotations to this work. The vegetables may represent his time spent in rural Holland, and their unorganized arrangement suggest the naïve virtuosity of his early career. The obscured background could also allude to the feeling of uncertainty which he felt at this early point in his career. The work also poses an interesting juxtaposition between his "high art" treatment of "low art" subject matter (namely a kitchen still-life) and his still lifes follow in the proud tradition of Dutch still life painting which hid a symbolic depth behind lavish "banquet scenes" and the more humble "breakfast pieces" to which this image alludes. But the painting may have also represented Liebermann's self-image as a craftsman and a creative artist, in the way that chefs were thought of during the time. The cruder subject of the work may have even sought to elucidate the idea that the craft of painting was of more importance than the subject matter. Additionally, the kitchen setting could be a tribute to his mother, who was known to have loved to cook, with the chef cap acting as a metaphor for his bond with her.
Oil on canvas - Stadtisches Museum, Gelsenkirchen
The Flax Spinners
This work, another of his ruminations on rural labor, depicts a group of orphans working in an unkempt weaving mill. Some are pictured holding out the string whilst others sit in a line, each on their own spindle, weaving flax. The room is bleak, as is the mood of the orphans, who all wear dark, drab clothing and look down towards to floor. Nevertheless, some hope exists in the sunlight that is allowed to enter the composition through the windows.
Liebermann demonstrates the permeation of slow-moving, casual rural life with the ordered, timely, cold and industrial urban world. Every figure within the work is so lost in thought they appear almost robotic, as if cogs in a large machine in fact. They also wear the same clothing emphasizing thus the uniformity and order of factory-like manual labor. The industrialism of the work is exemplified indeed by Liebermann's use of strict horizontals and parallels and the bleak blue and gray tones that are omnipresent in the work. The darkness inside the room, with the only light coming in through the windows shows how warmth and slower pace of rural life has been stripped away, perhaps alluding to the incoming industrial wave.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Berlin
The Parrot Man
Liebermann's Parrot Man depicts a working man - a zoo warden probably - in a sunny and warm Berlin Zoo. He holds three parrots one held up in his right hand and two below with his left hand. Reflecting his more adventurous use of color, the parrot in his right hand is blue, while the others are red. Another smaller (red) parrot sits on his cap. The Parrot Man himself wears a worker's "uniform" of black cap, blue jacket and brown pants.
The zenith of German Impressionism came in the decade after the establishment of the founding of the Berlin Secession (in 1898). Amongst the most important works were Liebermann's zoo paintings - The Parrot Man and The Parrot Walk (at Amsterdam Zoo, both from 1902) - and a number of beach scenes. His choice of subject matter reflects his immersion into leisure and culture in Berlin (and Amsterdam). He was by now a prominent painter and political activist who brought Berlin to the forefront of European modernism. His more varied use of color and less defined brush strokes indicate this; challenging the more realistic, more monochromatic images that characterized his earlier works. This new frivolity seemed to reflect his immersion into a more diverse and colorful culture in Berlin. The lack of strict linearity may also indicate the more leisurely approach towards his new subjects.
Oil on canvas - Museum Folkwang Essen
Terrace at the Restaurant Jacob in Nienstedten on the Elbe
This painting depicts a convivial outdoor scene at a bourgeois restaurant. The restaurant sits on the banks of the Elbe and within a colonnade of trees. The patrons, wearing colorful clothing, engage with one another and there is a sense of community amongst them. It appears to be summer, as the patrons' clothing is characterized by light colors and they do not wear jackets. The tables and chairs are painted white and the painting generally has a light color palette.
This piece demonstrates the turn of the century shift in Liebermann's in focus from rural, working class scenes in Holland, to leisurely days enjoyed by Berlin's bourgeois classes. There are several characteristics within the work that mark the stark contrast between the two periods. Firstly, all of the figures in this painting wear light, airy and varied clothing, whereas in Liebermann's earlier works the figures wear dark, uniform clothing. Also, the figures in this piece enjoy a relaxing lunch on the river, interacting with one another; any social interaction like this was a hint of luxury that is lacking in works such as Women Plucking Geese. Overall, this work has a lighter, warmer tone than the earlier works. We may note too that the scene is set outdoors, whereas the working paintings are set in a dark, claustrophobic indoor spaces.
Oil on canvas - Hamburger Kunsthalle
The Artist's Granddaughter at the Table
This piece portrays Liebermann's granddaughter Maria leaned over a wooden table. She appears to be either drawing or writing. She has short dark hair and wears a white dress with brown socks and shoes. She is in a well-lit, beige room with a darker floor. The painting exudes thus a mood of relaxation and nonchalance.
This work, painted late in Liebermann's career, is set in his villa at Wannsee. It is quite characteristic of this late period: almost all of Liebermann's paintings set within the villa and its gardens are painted in pastel shades. This contrasts Liebermann's bold coloration of other works set during the Berlin Secession or in Holland, suggesting that Liebermann, no longer subject to the criticism that plagued him throughout most of his career, felt a sense of quiet contentment and escape in Wannsee. Though he produced at least one self-portrait that showed him in a somber mood, Liebermann painted his daughter Käthe and granddaughter with great warmth and fondness. This shift in subject matter alludes also to his withdrawal from his leadership role within the German art establishment; a situation precipitated by the rise of the Nazis Party who demonized his art and subjected his activities to intense scrutiny. His portrait of his granddaughter Maria clearly marks the artist as a "recluse" who, having been an active member of society in his earlier years, now reclines as a quiet observer of the next generation.
Oil on canvas - Staatliches Museum, Schwerin
The Birch Alley in the Garden of Wannsee
In 1910, Liebermann started work on what would be his summer residence on the edge of Lake Wannsee, south-west of Berlin. The design of the villa and its gardens reflected the ornamental architecture, interior design and landscape principles as espoused by the Art Nouveau movement. Liebermann and his family would be residents of the villa between the months of April and October until his death in 1935. The gardens, which were designed together with his friend, the art historian Alfred Lichtwark, were intended to serve both as a place of rest and an "open air workshop" (that would ultimately inspire some 200 paintings). The architecture, interior design and landscaping worked in complete harmony but it was the warren of hedges, the gardens, and the birch grove that provided the artist with so many painterly motifs.
According to the philosophy of Art Nouveau, birch wood was symbolic of spring and the flowerings of youth. Lieberman's picturesque Birch Alley features close framing that plays on the geometric dynamic of the vertical trunks of the birch trees and the path of the trees that acts as a framing device for the view on the architectural splendour of the villa. Liebermann employs thick impressionistic touches of natural color, sometimes applied with a spatula, as a means of conveying the shape and flowing movement of the foliage.
After his death, Liebermann's family was forced to leave the villa by the Third Reich which took control of the property for the purposes of a Post Office. Following the war, the villa formed part of the Wannsee hospital and Liebermann's studio was converted into an operating theater. It was not until the end of the 1990s that the Max Liebermann Society secured a "historical building" status for the property and duly undertook the reconstruction of the garden and the house as a museum which opened to the public in 2006.
Oil on canvas - Gessellschaft Berlin
Influences and Connections
- Lovis Corinth
- Max Slevogt
- Ernst Oppler
- Fritz von Uhde
- Jozef Israëls