Beckmann, Bauhaus and Bourgeoisie, oh my!

by Beacon Staff • March 5, 2008

useum, the Fogg, lies a small building that, upon entering, looks like a grandmother's house. Room after room reveals sculptures, furniture, stained glass, knick-knacks, silverware and teapots. Don't be mistaken, though-this isn't Nana's homestead. It is actually the Bush-Reisinger museum, and it's home to some of the most interesting examples of German expressionist art in the Boston area.

In the middle of a gallery stands a sculpture that looks like a few chrome spatulas, eggbeaters and cheese graters got caught in the dishwasher. This piece is called "Light Prop for an Electric Stage" by Laacute;szloacute; Moholy-Nagy and is part of the permanent collection of the museum. By far one of the most interesting pieces to look at, the "Light Prop" is more than just a sculpture.

Every Wednesday, upon entering the museum's usually silent galleries, a faint knocking and clicking is heard. This is because every Wednesday at 1:45 p.m., a demonstration called "Light Space Modulator" takes place in the Bauhaus gallery. The event is a sight to see, for the contraption does not actually perform a function, it simply twirls, clanks and knocks about, as light bounces off of it from different angles.

Then, projected on the wall adjacent to it, is a movie version of it operating. The movie is not live footage, but it displays different camera angles and close ups of the many intricate yet simple parts of the machine. The film makes the clanking metallic mess seem angelic, like a robot ballerina elegantly dancing in a spotlight.

There are many other pieces in the museum that are not as intricate or enigmatic as "Light Prop for an Electric Stage," but they are just as powerful. For instance, a tiny 39 cm by 34.7 cm of a classic Piet Mondrian called "Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red" stands alone on a wall, its striking simplicity both powerful and serene. Mondrian, a classically-defined artist when it comes to the geometric form, painted this piece to fill the petite canvas with white squares and rectangles outlined in black, with hints of primary colors-red, yellow and blue.

The painting is a beautiful contrast to the ever complex "light prop," for its straight lines and simple color scheme feel almost like an anchor that holds a ship down, but still lets it float on the water's edge. The painting is a solid, sturdy and simple piece of art that keeps you grounded as it lets your mind wonder. The picture reflects the premise behind the rest of the museum-size doesn't matter when it comes to works of art that make you think and evoke emotion.

Currently on view in the Bush-Reisinger Museum are three of Max Beckmann's most prominent works. Beckmann was a German Expressionist painter in the early to mid-20th century and these three major works sum up who he was and what his art was about.

"Dance in Baden-Baden" is an oil painting of high society in the 1920s. The painting reflects the aspects of style that defined the Roaring '20s dress and, at the same time, exudes a satirical quality.

The socialites in the painting seem very stiff and angular; they do not smile or look at each other. They dance with an air about them that screams "elite," because of their forced and overstated positions and facial expressions. Most of the characters look down their exaggerated large noses at other characters, some squint their eyes and pull down their lips as if they are studying a piece of jewelry for its value.

Beckmann is known to create social satires such as this, for the theme of his paintings is often a critique on European society.

"Woman with Mandolin in Yellow and Red" seems to be just that-a painting comprised of mainly red, yellow and green with hints of blue, of a woman lying in a sexualized position with her breasts and thighs exposed. However the demure expression on her face, and the intense rather than soft colors provide a unique contrast, one that defines his portrayal of women in his later work.

From the '30s on, Beckmann's work turned from analysis of society to commentary on social movements, such as Nazism. In "Landscape with Tempest," a much darker tone has an immediate and heavy impact. A faceless man attempts to stand from his fallen position, but trees sway from a dark and tempestuous storm and keep him paralyzed. A ladder slumps in the corner, which is perhaps his means of escape. However, it only leads to a dark tree that alludes to a Nazi symbol, conveying a feeling of fear, oppression and hopelessness.

Perhaps your grandmother's closet is not full of robot ballerinas, anchors, mandolins and high society characters, but as far as a room full of interesting gizmo-and-gadgets-a-plenty-art is concerned, the Bush-Reisinger is a very unique and untraditional museum full of shiny things to keep you interested and thinking.