Gateway to Abstraction

Max Beckmann Landscape Cannes 1934

Landscape is the gateway to Modernist abstraction. With the landscape one doesn’t have to worry about pesky issues of sex, desire, nudity or the human gaze – usually. Landscape doesn’t look back at us. It’s not conscious of others. In other words it’s pure ground, and that allows us to process it as a visual resource. We can use its structure to work the materials. In that way Landscape is the most open of subjects, and it can be whatever we like it to be. But that’s not how Max Beckmann saw landscapes. He made them seem strange, dramatic and compelling. There’s no “luxe calme et volupté” in these paintings. Cannes from 1934 is not so much a beautiful place for beautiful people as it is an official gateway or way station. Papers will have to be shown. Max must be sitting at a table because across the way is an empty chair – (someone’s left or didn’t show?). Maybe the companion has gone down that road to that blue paradise beyond. But to get to that paradise you have to pass those palms that look like an endless row of bureaucratic doric columns, their thick shadows filling the road ahead. Palm leaves explode overhead and sway with menace. Beckmann’s landscape isn’t about spirituality or ease. No. This landscape is about something else entirely…

Max Beckmann – Seascape with Agaves and Old Castle 1939

Max’s landscapes are heavy things. They’re alive with volume and heft. Those agaves with their spiky leaves and flowers are like swords. The rocks are thick and bulky – immovable. The tree branch sags beneath the weight of those slabs of sharpened leaves. Everything is weighted down under the light and air of the humid Cote d’Azur. Max can’t help himself, and he paints the landscape at war with the world around it. It’s 1939 and even here at the edge of Europe danger lurks everywhere. This isn’t Impressionism – the violet and yellow of Monet’s light and airy Mediterranean vacation landscapes. This is the other side of life on that coast – dark and dangerous. It’s a port for refugees, dissidents and escapees. The place to where one runs to get away. The place where one might find safety. But as Max paints it – there is no escape or safety. There are only the edges of things.


  • Paul Harvey Scull

    Thought provoking text. Have not really seen these works before. While reading It Graham Sutherland’s ‘Entrance to a lane’ popped into my head. I suppose it is perhaps the notion of some feeling of threat or unease at the often seemingly inert, quiet or unassuming character of nature rarely which I feel has not been explored much in landscape painting. Might be wrong of course.

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