- Max Liebermann: Modern Art and Modern GermanyOur PickBy Marion F. Deshmukh
- Max Liebermann: Pathfinder of German SecessionistsBy Anna Louise Wangeman
Important Art by Max Liebermann
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.
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.
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.