'Oh, this infinite space! We must constantly fill up the foreground with junk so that we do not have to look in its frightening depth. What would we poor people do, if we would not always come up with some idea like country, love, art, and religion with which we can again and again cover up that dark black whole' (Max Beckmann, 'Letter, May 24, 1915' cited in P. Selz, Max Beckmann exh. cat. New York, 1964, p. 23).
Stilleben mit Grammophon und Schwertlilien (Still-life with Gramophone and Irises) is an important painting from Beckmann's first Frankfurt years made in the spring of 1924. Painted between 30 April and 1st July it is the first in an important series of mysterious and complex allegorical still-life paintings that Beckmann was to make throughout his career. Seeming to look back on the drama of the artist's life and work during his first years in Frankfurt, it is a work that belongs to, and perhaps even reflects, an auspicious period of great change for the artist and his work.
Depicting an interior scene in which a convolution of objects are arranged in a sequence of impossible angular contradictions, the painting is centered around a vase of irises on which is written '(An)denk(en) (Frank)furt' (Souvenir of Frankfurt). This central motif is surrounded by an array of exactly the same kind of allegorical and symbolic objects that articulate Beckmann's most ambitious and important paintings from his first years in Frankfurt. This was the period when in order to recuperate from his traumatic war experience Beckmann had moved to the more sedate city on the river Main away from his home city of Berlin. In Frankfurt, angry with the current state of Germany and the medieval state of hell into which it seemed to be descending, he had expressed in such masterpieces of the early 1920s as Carnival (fig. 2), Die Nacht, Vor dem Maskenball and Selbstbildnis als Clown (fig. 3), the existential nightmare of the current crisis as a carnival of claustrophobia and metaphysical banality. Transforming everyday objects and seemingly ordinary scenes from daily life into a stage-like arena of artifice and masked pretence, Beckmann gave expression to his view of modern life as an absurd parade within which each individual was locked and isolated in a lonely personal search for meaning and identity.
Most of the objects that collectively make up Stilleben mit Grammophon und Schwertlilien appear with such regularity in these famous paintings that this painting at first seems to be an apparently arbitrary collation of stage-props drawn from these haunting and often nightmarish works. Indeed, in this respect, this painting may in part be a kind of fond farewell to these objects-as-memorabilia as it is one of the last of Beckmann's paintings to be painted in the cold 'crystal-clear and razor sharp' style of these great Frankfurt works. After a trip to Italy in the summer of 1924, Beckmann's art would undergo a significant change. Here, the fan, mask and mysterious horn of the gramophone, mix with mandolin, fallen rose and mirror to create a crowded, chaotic and seemingly fragile tower of form that looks as if it could collapse and crash at any moment. Echoing to some extent the bizarre and disturbing metaphysical constructions of Giorgio de Chirico (fig. 1), whose work had a profound influence on much German art of this period, the overwhelming impression left by this group of objects is one of fragility and carnivalesque absurdity. This pervasive atmosphere of fragility and of the fleeting temporality of things is reinforced by the symbolism of the objects themselves--music in particular, being not just a favorite pastime for Beckmann but also a potent symbol of the transient and momentary nature of all experience and existence.
Music too, lies at the heart of the other central theme of this work, the theme of romance. Not only is music the food of love, but it is also the most fleeting and temporal of all the arts and the pervasive symbolism of this painting revolves around the temporality of romance. Like the phases of the moon (a wooden stage-prop of which appears at the right of the painting), or the sound of a gramophone, the notes of a song or the bloom of a flower, all must change, fade away, wither and die. So too, this painting seems to say, does romance. At the right of the painting, a woman's face donning a carnival mask of the same kind as worn by Beckmann in Vor dem Maskenball and later donned by many of his painted women, seems to reinforce this sentiment.
It has been suggested that this figure is a disguised portrait of Naïla--the mysterious woman known as Dr. Hildegard Melms with whom Beckmann had an affair in 1923 and whom he later painted in 1934 and in his 1935 portrait of the five most beautiful women in his life Grosses Frauenbild (see Cornelia Stabenow, Max Beckmann Retrospective exh. cat. St. Louis 1984, p. 226). The strong musical theme of this work however could also suggest that the masked woman is an allegorical portrait of Beckmann's wife Minna Tube. In 1924 Beckmann's sixteen year-long marriage to his opera-singing wife was disintegrating--as his affair with Naïla indicated. At the same time as this painting was being made however, Beckmann had recently met in Vienna, another musician, a young violinist Mathilde 'Quappi' von Kaulbach daughter of the Munich painter Friedrich August von Kaulbach. This vivacious young woman would become the love of Beckmann's life and, he was to marry her after a second visit to Vienna the following year. 'Quappi' later featured in many of Beckmann's paintings, often in carnivalesque guise. The mask serves here not just to suggest the charade of life and the artifice of appearance but also it seems, to mask the identity of the specific 'object' of artist's desire so that she too becomes a pictorial symbol within the picture.
Reflections in the mirror are a common device in Beckmann's art and the appearance here of a masked woman adds, like the symbol of the sickle moon, to the sense, that, ultimately, as in so many of his works, the main subject of this picture is, in fact, the illusion and artifice of reality as well as that of romance. 'The construction of a picture is determined by the transformation of the optical impression of the world of objects by means of a transcendental mathematics of the soul of the subject', Beckmann wrote in the introduction to his retrospective of 1928. (Max Beckmann, 'Statement in the Catalogue of the Mannheim Kunsthalle Retrospective', 1928, reproduced in Barbara Copeland Buenger (ed.) Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait in Words, Collected Writings and Statements 1903-1950, London, 1997, p. 294) The search to convey a sense of a deeper existential meaning lying beneath the façade of a world of objects was, Beckmann believed, the main purpose of the artist as well as an echo of the spiritual quest of man to find meaning within his or her own life. 'My aim', Beckmann once said, 'is always to get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting--to make the invisible visible through reality. It may sound paradoxical, but it is, in fact, reality which forms the mystery of our existence' (Max Beckmann 'On My Painting', 1938, cited in Peter Selz, Max Beckmann, New York 1996, p 101.).
(fig. 1) Giorgio de Chirico, Le rêve de Tobie (The Dream of Tobias), April-August 1917. Private Collection. BARCODE 25010800
(fig. 2) Max Beckmann, Carnival, 1920. Tate Gallery, London. BARCODE 25010817.
(fig. 3) Max Beckmann, Selbstildnis als Clown, 1921. Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum. BARCODE 25010824