Catalogue entry

T02395 PRUNIER 1944.
Inscribed ‘Beckmann A 44.’ b.r.
Oil on canvas, 39 1/2×30 5/16 (100.3 × 77)
Purchased from Richard Feigen & Co. (Grant-in-Aid) 1979
Prov: Dr. Helmuth Lütjens, Amsterdam, 1945; Paul Cassirer & Co., Amsterdam; Mr and Mrs Richard L. Feigen, Bedford, New York, 1958
Exh: Max Beckmann, Kunstverein, Düsseldorf, February–April 1950 (90); Max Beckmann zum Gedächtnis 1884–1950, Haus der Kunst, Munich, June–July 1951 and Schloss Charlottenberg, Berlin, September–October 1951 (152); Max Beckmann, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 1951–January 1952 (62) as ‘Pruimenboom’ (Plum tree); Max Beckmann 1884–1950, Kunsthaus, Zurich, November 1955 – January 1956 (119); Ausstellung Max Beckmann, Kunsthalle, Basle, January–February 1956 (107); Max Beckmann, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, March–May 1956 (90); Max Beckmann Paintings and Drawings, Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago, August 1961 (no catalogue)
Lit: Erhard Göpel and Barbara Göpel, Max Beckmann Katalog der Gemälde, Bern, 1976, vol. I, pp.400–1, repr. vol. II, pl.241; Max Beckmann, Tagebücher 1940–1950, Munich - Vienna 1979, pp.82, 95
Repr: Tate Gallery 1978–80, p.40 in colour

Known also as ‘Restaurant Prunier’ or ‘Cafe Prunier’, this work is no. 667 in the Göpels’ catalogue of Max Beckmann's paintings. In the artist's handwritten list of completed work for the year 1944, which is in the possession of his widow, the painting is numbered 12 and given the date 1944 (see Göpel, op.cit., p.p. 38, 400). Reifenberg and Hausenstein, in their pioneering monograph-catalogue of Beckmann's paintings published in Munich in 1949 - which, according to Göpel, tallies more or less with Beckmann's own lists as far as title, date and details of ownership are concerned - entitle the painting ‘Pruniers Ponis’ (presumably a misprint for ‘Paris’) and number it 546 out of a total of 660 works.

There are two mentions of the painting in Beckmann's published diaries for the year 1940–1950. On Wednesday, 23 February 1944 he writes that he has started three new sketches, including ‘Die Fressenden’ (literally ‘The Guzzlers’ or ‘Gobblers’ - clearly a reference to the way the two female figures in the finished painting appear to be gorging themselves on lobster) and ‘Atelier’ (preliminary title for ‘Akademie II’, Göpel 676). The second, equally brief mention occurs in the entry for Sunday, 13 August 1944, where Beckmann records the painting's completion, this time calling it by its definitive title. As with most of his paintings executed during the Amsterdam years (1937–47), ‘Prunier’ is inscribed with the letter ‘A’ between the artist's signature and its date. It was one of several works bought from Beckmann's studio at Rokin 85 in the difficult winter of 1944–5 by Dr Helmuth Lütjens, director of Paul Cassirer's Amsterdam gallery. Lütjens was one of those who befriended and supported Beckmann during his years of seclusion in Amsterdam, where he had gone to avoid Nazi persecution.

In Beckmann's oeuvre, ‘Prunier’ comes midway between the completion of one triptych, ‘Carnival’ (Göpel 649), and the beginning of another, ‘Blind Man's Buff’ (Göpel 704), which the artist considered to be his most important pictorial statement. T02395 shows two ladies eating at Prunier's, the famous seafood restaurant in Paris (9, rue Duphot), the city where Beckmann had spent much of the period 1929–32 and where he had last been in the spring of 1939. According to his widow, Beckmann was fond of seafood and liked to eat at Prunier's with his friends. He returned to Paris in April 1947 and lunched at the restaurant with Stephan Lackner (see Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann: Memories of a Friendship, Miami, 1969, p.102).

One of the ladies in the painting sits beneath a light-shade directly facing the specator, a pose often adopted by women in Beckmann's paintings, especially in the numerous portraits of Quappi, his wife, where she is also on occasion associated with light (holding a burning candle, for example, in Göpel 587). The woman on the left, her head in profile, wears a cloak similar to those worn by certain mythological and theatrical figures in Beckmann's paintings (e.g. Göpel 659 and, most notably, The King in the central panel of the triptychs ‘Departure’ 1932–3 and ‘Actors’ 1941–2, Göpel 412 and 604). Both women are observed by a third, bespectacled male presence sitting or standing in shadow behind their table, also chewing a piece of lobster (probably a claw). Outside, the French word Sorti(e), written back to front, can be seen through the restaurant window, partially concealing the figure of a man and below a directional arrow - a device found elsewhere in Beckmann (e.g. Göpel 526, 677) whose immediate source, according to the artist, was the exit notices in the Paris métro (see Lackner, op. cit., p.73). Upside down, this sign could read ‘Rokin’, the name of the street in which the Beckmanns lived.

Sensual pleasures, especially good food, wine and tobacco, were of considerable significance to Beckmann, and this is reflected in his art. The wartime diary is scattered with descriptions of meals eaten and delicacies procured, and with the names of bars and cabarets frequented. Memories of meals consumed on holiday in the south of France or in Paris provide the starting-point for a number of pictures executed during this period: café-scenes and still-lifes in which food, and particularly fish or sea-food such as herring, mussels and oysters (a reminder possibly that the artist was living close to the North Sea), figure prominently, often with emblematic overtones. Lobster makes its first appearance in 1941, in two still-lifes (Göpel 568 and 577). A painting of 1942 or 1943 (Göpel 652), in which two women eating oysters are watched from behind by male figures, including a silhouetted head framed by the window, is closely related to T02395. Beckmann returns to the theme of women eating fish in the centre panel of his last, unfinished triptych, ‘Ballet Rehearsal’ 1950 (Göpel 834). But nowhere are the aggressive qualities of crustacea and the carnivorous instincts of humans made more explicit than in T02395, where the scarlet colour of the lobster, repeated in the dress of the left-hand figure and also in the central male head, contributes strongly to the impression of sexuality which pervades the ritual. Sharp objects or instruments are a recurrent feature in Beckmann's wartime paintings; in ‘Prunier’, the dynamic composition is made up of harsh, angular rhythms which reinforce the suggestion of underlying violence.

In a lecture on his painting delivered at the New Burlington Galleries, London, on 21 July 1938, Beckmann spoke about his attitude to form, space and colour, and especially the reasons for his characteristic use of black. ‘Many people, I know, would like to see everything white, that is objectively beautiful, or black, that is negative and ugly; but I can only express myself in both together.’

Colour, he said, ‘enriches the composition and enables me to penetrate the object more deeply; it has its part in determining my spiritual attitude to the work, but in this it is subordinate to light and especially to the treatment of form ...Pure local colours and broken tones should be used together, as each needs to be complemented by the other.’ (reprinted in catalogue of Max Beckmann, Marlborough Fine Art, November 1974, pp.11–21 and also in Max Beckmann: The Triptychs, Whitechapel Art Gallery, November 1980–January 1981, pp.9–12; translation by P. S. Falla).

As the wartime diaries indicate, the period between the end of February and the beginning of August 1944 was a time of surprising productivity for the sixty-year-old Beckmann - he would often work on several paintings at once - despite illness, followed by bouts of depression, and further anxiety caused by uncertainty over his own future and the wartime situation. Especially worrying to him were the prospect of being called up for military service by the Germans (he was finally declared unfit on 31 May), the increasingly frequent Allied air-raids over Amsterdam and the conflicting reports, from June onwards, of the Allied invasion. Beckmann was kept up to date with news by the Posts, a family living in the same house in Amsterdam who owned a radio. Five days after beginning work on T02395 the artist fell ill with the first stirrings of the heart trouble which was eventually to kill him, and he was unable to paint for a fortnight. The mysterious male head in the centre of the painting, his heavy features largely in shadow but his presence drawn sharply to the viewer's attention by the arrow outside the window (a result of Beckmann's practice of condensing the space of his paintings or, as he put it, reducing a three-dimensional subject to a flat surface), bears a slight resemblance to the artist, though Beckmann never normally portrayed himself wearing spectacles. He was, however, the most autobiographical of painters, appearing throughout his own work in a variety of guises. Diary entries for March 1944 reveal, not unnaturally, a preoccupation with death and it is conceivable that the central dark figure in ‘Prunier’ was intended, at one level, as a comment on the artist's predicament in Amsterdam that spring.

According to Mrs Beckmann, her husband's sketchbooks which are in her possession throw no further light on the painting. Beckmann's preoccupations at the time are discussed in her forthcoming book on the artist, though there is no mention here of Prunier.

The compiler is grateful to Catherine Viviano for forwarding a letter from Mrs Beckmann's secretary and companion containing information supplied by Mrs Beckmann.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981