Framed by Politics
In the Art of Max Beckmann and Sandra Ramos, Context Is Everything
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page C05
On the surface of things, there's but a slim chance that a fellow born 120 years ago in Leipzig, Germany, would have much in common with a 35-year-old woman living in Havana today. But read on.
Content-wise, the artists in question -- German expressionist Max Beckmann, whose prints are on view at Robert Brown Gallery, and Cuban artist Sandra Ramos, who exhibits prints and paintings on paper at Fraser -- hardly merit comparison. In the shadow of two world wars, Beckmann made works peopled with the stark, architectural faces of Weimar-era Europeans. Ramos's pictures star a young girl often drifting in the ocean like her troubled island home.
Yet the products of both artists were, and are, fundamentally shaped by the politics of their day. A fact that holds true for plenty of other artists, it seems particularly clear in the works of these two. Both gained significant, even essential, creative power by channeling their own experiences. They'd be lesser talents without the political framework surrounding them.
Let's start with Beckmann. Trained in romantic and impressionist styles, he spent the first decade of the 20th century dutifully turning out canvases depicting the Gilded Age elite in a derivative, if sure, style. A few early prints on view at Brown, most from 1911, betray that academic past. "Open-Air Bath in Tegel" exhibits the kind of classical flourishes that academically trained artists wield with ease.
Then came the First World War. At its outset, Beckmann signed on to the medical corps as an orderly. A year later, in 1915, the artist suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged. When he resumed artmaking, his work changed radically. Figures were angled, scenes claustrophobic. Faces and bodies were stuffed into drawing rooms and cabarets. An increasing paranoia permeated the pictures, as if every scene contained a suspect -- guilty of what, we can't be sure. Casting his net wide, Beckmann portrayed the lives of everyday people as well as the daily lives of the privileged -- whom, from the look of his angled lines, he despised.
The horrors of war transformed Beckmann into an accidental activist. Life never looked the same.
Beckmann disavowed any political agenda. In a 1938 lecture, he denied any such leanings: "I have never been politically active in any way," he said. He may not have schemed or protested, but his art certainly did. If the scrawny, undernourished family saying grace in "The Hunger" isn't a comment on the dire straits of the German state, I don't know what is. Piously saying grace before a meager meal, the family embodies the absurdity of such rituals in the face of utter want.
What's beautiful about Beckmann isn't that he's got a single agenda. He seems borderline contemptuous of just about everyone, including himself. His pictures support multiple interpretations, though each in its way manifests something of the era's grim climate. Which may be why, when the artist depicts insane asylum inmates, they don't look so different from the cads and stuffed shirts ogling strippers at a nightclub. All this sharp commentary, I'd wager, derives from Beckmann's experiences among the bodies in 1914. Everything he drew or painted after that horror was seen through a dark lens.
Ramos may not have a pivotal experience to point to, yet she's been immersed, since childhood, in the struggles of Castro's Cuba. Though many contemporary Cuban artists similarly tackle their nation's strife, Ramos's work feels a little different: Her country's pain is exposed through a very personal iconography. Though making work that's nearly autobiographical -- almost all her pieces star an Alice in Wonderland-type girl who is modeled partly on the artist -- she draws a generalized critique of her country.
Again and again, Ramos presents the image of the young girl. With her long straight hair and wispy bangs, she seems the classic innocent, a fairy-tale child untouched by life's burdens. Yet this guiltless face is pasted, every time, onto a woman's body, complete with all the curves.
Such splicing of maturity and virtue sets up a profound disconnect, one that Ramos uses to underscore her country's dichotomies and limitations. When Ramos places the girl inside a floating bottle, like an SOS from a castaway, we get a sense of how hopeless Ramos and many of her countrymen might feel. Drifting idly, the girl embodies Cuba's listlessness.
Yet all is not grim on the Caribbean isle. Though its title sounds bleak, Ramos's "The Damned Circumstance of Having Water All Around" doesn't look quite so bad. Here, the girl-woman's body is shaped like the Cuban isle and floating languorously on the water.
The pose hints at the pleasures of separateness, of being removed from the global system. That isolation has its upsides only feeds Ramos's conflicts. Ramos remained in Cuba even as she watched her former husband emigrate. Though vexed by her country's problems, she's clearly wedded to them. She once said that leaving Cuba would change her art. She's probably right.
Certainly, Beckmann's disturbed reaction to the politics of his day gave the world some extraordinary pictures. Ramos is too young an artist for us to draw such grand conclusions. But her imagery has a way of sticking in the mind. And she, for better or worse, finds herself in a remarkable place at a remarkable time.
Max Beckmann at Robert Brown Gallery, 2030 R St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday noon-6 p.m., 202-483-4383, to June 26.
Sandra Ramos at Fraser Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Friday noon-3 p.m., Saturday noon- 6 p.m., 202-298-6450, to June 16.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"The Hunger" (1919) by Max Beckmann, on view at Robert Brown Gallery.
(Robert Brown Gallery)