A Big Opening

Museums, like movie studios, prefer to open big.

The high cost of museum management, from health care to advertising, has forced institutions to reach for blockbuster exhibits — Tutmania! — market them like summer movies, and pray for long lines and lasting buzz on opening day.

Then there’s Max Liebermann.

Skirball Cultural Center founder and director Uri Herscher was in Jerusalem several years ago, visiting a friend’s small, art-filled apartment. His eye caught an attractive painting, a Liebermann, his friend said, and Herscher responded, “Who?”

Virtually unknown today, Max Liebermann was the most famous German painter of his time. He died at age 87 in 1935, just as Adolf Hitler rose to power. As he watched the Nazis march through the Brandenburg Gate celebrating the takeover of Hitler, Liebermann famously remarked, “One cannot eat as much as one would like to vomit.”

In 1935, he couldn’t have known the half of it. But even by 1933, he understood plenty. Liebermann had already resigned from the presidency of the Prussian Academy of Arts, which forbade him to paint because he was Jewish and refused to exhibit paintings of Jews. After his death, the Nazis destroyed much of Liebermann’s work.

Collectors, mostly European, valued the remaining Impressionist depictions of peasants, landscapes and cultural figures. But elsewhere Liebermann remained erased from history — an artistic equivalent of what Hitler attempted on the Jewish people as a whole.

“Can you eradicate an artist?” Skirball’s Herscher asked. “What does that mean?”

Truthfully, the answer to the first question is almost certainly “yes” — if time and circumstances conjoin to make it so. The second question won’t have to be dealt with insofar as Liebermann is concerned, thanks to those who saved his work and to museum leaders such as Herscher.

Herscher posed these questions in the conference room just off his office at the Skirball Cultural Center. He was standing over the page proofs of a thick and comprehensive catalog of Liebermann’s work — the catalog that will accompany the Skirball’s upcoming exhibit, “Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism.” The exhibit, which opened Sept. 15 and runs through Jan. 29, is the first complete Liebermann exhibit ever held in the United States.

Herscher refused to let Liebermann and his art remain another victim of Hitler’s Germany. But he acknowledged that bringing an exhibit of this size to the Skirball is a risk. After all, the Skirball’s exhibit on the life and work of Albert Einstein, held last year, netted a small fortune in ancillary sales — Einstein posters and ties and the like. The market for Max Liebermann desk calendars is, to say the least, untested. It took extra convincing and fundraising for Herscher — who happens to excel at convincing and fundraising — to persuade his board that the Skirball wouldn’t suffer for Liebermann’s art.

It was the right decision. Although every museum deserves and needs its blockbuster, not every deserving artist guarantees huge crowds.

Liebermann merits exhibition at the Skirball because his art is significant, but so is his life story, or more accurately, the meaning of his life story. Herscher’s initial vision for the Skirball was as a museum that would explore the role of Jews, and by extension all minorities, in the life of a democracy. And it is no stretch to apply this rubric to Liebermann.

For a brief moment, for a fleeting few years, Liebermann and his art flourished in a free Germany — the flawed and flailing tries at democracy that were unable to take root either before or after World War I. He attained a measure of success that allowed him entrĂ©e into the highest echelons of Berlin society. He was a vocal and patriotic supporter of his country during World War I. And his art came to reflect the power and satisfaction of bourgeois Germany. As for Liebermann, his self-identity was as a painter first, a German second and a Jew somewhere after that.

“I have sought to serve German art with all my strength,” he wrote upon resigning from the Prussian Academy. “It is my conviction that art has nothing to do with politics or descent.”

Months later, as the Nazis solidified their hold on Germany, Liebermann’s conviction weakened. In a letter to the Hebrew poet Hayyim Nachman Bialik, he admitted that in the past he distanced himself from Zionism.

“I now think otherwise,” he wrote. “As difficult as it was for me, I have awoken from the dream I have dreamt my entire life.”

“There was a level of self-delusion that is heartbreaking,” Herscher told me. “Only at the very end of his life, when it was too late, did Liebermann recognize his self-delusion.”

The irony of course is that an artist, whose talent rests on his perception, fails to see what is happening all around him. Liebermann painted some of his most famous landscapes around his villa at Wannsee, just a stone’s throw from the mansion where Nazi leaders planned the extermination of Europe’s Jews.

Herscher slid a print of a Wannsee painting across the table to me.

“It just shows you the limits of art,” he said.

I’ve no doubt the actual exhibit will be beautiful — and bittersweet. In spite of that — or because of that — the choice to finally bring Max Liebermann to America was smart and bold. And it’s one you should reward with your presence.

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.skirball.org.