Max Liebermann – modern master 

Self-portrait (source: Wikimedia Commons)

175 years ago, on July 20, 1847, the famous artist Max Liebermann, regarded as the pioneer of modernism in Germany, was born in Berlin.  After realist beginnings, influenced by the School of Barbizon which he encountered during a stay in Paris from 1873 to 1878, he became a master impressionist finding inspiration in beer gardens, café terrasses, gardens and parks. Portraits form a considerable part of his oeuvre too, including the creation of fascinating self-portraits throughout his career. Today his paintings can be found in all the major museums around the world.

After his years spent in Paris, the Netherlands and Munich he settled in Berlin in 1884 where he became a key figure in the intellectual life of the city. As a member of the Prussian Academy of Art he actively fought against the conservative art policies of emperor Wilhem II and associated artist Anton von Werner. He was also involved in the founding of several independent artists’ societies like the ‘Berliner Secession’ and the ‘Neue Secession.’ Max Liebermann reflected on his activities and artistic ideas and influences in numerous articles and speeches which were collected and published in his lifetime by his friend and associate Bruno Cassirer. I am pleased that the University Library holds these.

Liebermann was highly respected which is reflected in his being president of the Prussian Academy of Arts from 1920 to 1932 and from 1932 being honouree president of the academy. However, when the Nazis came to power, he was forced to give up this post and his membership because of his Jewish heritage and he withdrew completely from public life. He died on February 8, 1935. It is interesting to note that it was still possible for a work to be published by a Jewish organisation which prominently featured a drawing by Max Liebermann.

After Max Liebermann’s death his widow had to sell his collection of exquisite art in order to support herself. Martha Liebermann committed suicide in 1943 after being threatened with deportation to the concentration camps. The Nazis confiscated the remaining artworks. The art collection reflects Liebermann’s discerning taste and interest in other artists. Works by Manet, Degas, Monet and Cezanne could be found in the collection. A few years ago, a research project attempted to reconstruct the collection resulting in two publications.

Further evidence of Max Liebermann’s wide interests and intellectual curiosity is his extensive correspondence with people across Europe. Recently the letters were published in a nine-volume edition collecting 3800 letters by Liebermann himself with 1200 letters addressed to him.

The work of Max Liebermann has understandably been the focus of many exhibitions with accompanying catalogues published. Currently nearly 30 exhibition catalogues devoted to Max Liebermann can be found in the University Library. The latest catalogue added to our collections accompanied an exhibition held earlier this year in Darmstadt and Düsseldorf. Entitled Ich. Max Liebermann the exhibition presented him as a European artist, showing his works alongside the works of the artists who influenced him, and whom he admired.

No doubt many more works on Max Liebermann will be added to our collections over time as his work and personality are so fascinating.

Christian Staufenbiel

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