One of Europe’s most important artists would turn 175 on July 20th. Liebermann was a pioneer of modernism in Germany, paving the way for the many movements that would follow. From his base in Berlin, he broke away from the constraints of Kaiser and Academy and became one of the leading representatives of German Impressionism.
Photo by: View of the Liebermann Villa from the Wannsee shore, Zyance
Max Liebermann was born in Berlin in 1847 in an upper-class Jewish family. His father, a prominent businessman, expected his son to follow his footsteps, so, initially, Max went to study law and philosophy at the University of Berlin. As part of his personal education, for two years (1866-68) he took art lessons from Carl Steffeck, and this period has changed his life’s direction forever. In 1868, he enrolled in the Weimar Art School.
When you stroll the rooms of the Alte Nationalgalerie, you can hardly recognize that the works belong to the same author. His early paintings portray women plucking geese, mending nets, and gathering potatoes. Liebermann’s Weimar period was very much focused on “simple life” and was influenced by the French Barbizon School.
Upon his return to Berlin, in 1984, his work started to transform. Berlin’s art scene in those times was strongly dominated by the Prussian Academy, which had close links to the Kaiser and controlled what could be exhibited. Liebermann, very much appalled by this structure, organized the Group of 11, a collaborative which set out to establish free art exhibitions, and later, in 1898, co-founded and led the Berlin Secession, a larger independent exhibition society, championing new forms of modern art. The subjects of Liebermann’s works moved away from the rural to the scenes of middle-class leisure. In those year, he also became Berlin’s most in-demand portraitist.
Photo by: Max Liebermann, Self-portrait with Paintbrush, 1913
Photo by: Cobbler's Shop, Max Liebermann, 1881
Photo by: Biergarten, Max Liebermann, circa 1915
During the following decades Berlin art movement exceedingly evolved, moving further away from Kaiser’s censorship. In 1920, Liebermann was appointed President of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, one of his highest career achievements. Sadly, the golden years have not lasted long, as the national socialists started to gain political power and the antisemitic sentiments triumphed. In 1933, after the Nazi party enforced anti-Semitic legislation, he was asked to resign from his post. Additionally, his work was removed from museums and confiscated from individual collectors. He died in 1935 (from natural causes) before the real horrors began, but his family was not so lucky. His daughter was forced to flee with her family, and his wife committed suicide in 1943, right before her scheduled deportation from Berlin. The art of Liebermann was somewhat forgotten and was revived only in the 1970s.
When in Wannsee, visit Max Liebermann’s family house built in 1909 on the last remaining plot of the Alsen villa colony by architect Paul Otto Baumgarten. Standing in front of his works and looking out of the window, you can visualize what he saw when he painted. There is a cozy café by the lake with a beautiful garden, one of the most important motifs in Liebermann’s paintings.
Starting on his birthday, Alte Nationalgalerie is also paying a homage to the artist with the jubilee exhibition with various works from its permanent collection.
Photo by: Max Liebermann - Toddler School in Amsterdam (1880), Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin
Photo by: Women Plucking Geese, Max Liebermann, from 1871 until 1872
Photo by: Two riders on the beach, Max Liebermann, 1903