Dreaming Watercolors

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[caption id="attachment_2393" align="alignnone" width="577"]Max Beckmann, Two Girls Reading, c. 1935.Watercolor on charcoal over Fabriano paper. Image courtesy of Karin and Rüdinger Volhard, Frankfurt am Main.[/caption]


The Bay of Biscay’s roaring waves create a cacophony of sound as they echo against the vaunted metallic curves of the façade of the Guggenheim Bilbao. While some would say the attraction to visitors here is solely the mellifluously contorted Gehry-esque design, the museum knows it’s also what’s inside that counts.

And as visitors cross through the doors of the building’s imposing outer shell and experience the museum’s latest exhibition—entitled Max Beckmann: Watercolors and Pastels—this reality becomes more than apparent. As the title suggests, the exhibition features nearly 100 watercolors and pastels by the famed 20th century artist.

Born in 1884 in Leipzig Germany, Beckmann became entwined in the artistic influences of numerous world locales, residing in Amsterdam and Paris before finally making his way to New York. Gaining notoriety as a graphic artist and painter, he worked restlessly for five decades in oeuvres that can be described as ephemeral and cheerful. He developed a very personal style which many dub Expressionist, but his painting had such freedom it is hard to limit his work to a singular term.

He is known for experimenting with numerous materials and colors on his canvases, many of which recollect his homeland’s wondrous landscapes. He once said,“The greatest mystery of all is reality,” and, indeed, he was a treasurer of all things observed. He displayed a particular reverence for the personal and intimate feelings and expressions he associated with contemplating the nature of life.

A product of the time in which he lived, Beckmann’s art was branded “degenerate” by the Third Reich and its exhibition was forbidden. However, his work was resurrected in the 1980s by a wave of retrospectives in New York, Zurich, and Paris and Beckmann is now regarded as a significant twentieth century artist.

Within this collection of watercolors and pastels is a glimpse of an artist who worked lightly—often humorously—and was stimulated by instantaneous moments, both of which are very contemporary traits. The accepted image of a troubled and serious artist who suffered the problems of his times and painfully grappled with issues of human existence is juxtaposed against the sometimes whimsical nature of these works.

Beckmann differed from many of his artistic contemporaries who concentrated on displaying their anxieties and using their brush strokes as a catharsis for their troubled souls. Refreshingly, Beckman had a positive spirit and—as the Guggenheim Bilbao’s latest exhibition shows us— he had the simple ability to capture the gleaming essence of a human smile in paint.