When a man paints a woman

“A girl sits there with her legs crossed. I get a feeling about her and try to put it down.” This is de Kooning explaining his controversial “Woman” series. Why did he want to paint a woman? “I guess because I’m not a woman. There isn’t so much difference when you paint between a man and a woman.”

For 500 years, men shaped art’s possibilities by painting women: Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”, Velazquez’ Infanta and her maids in “Las Meninas”, Manet’s “Olympia”, Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”. Then came de Kooning’s 1952 “Woman” series: frontal, aggressive, sexually charged female forms with claw-like hands and crazy grins emerging from, yet dissolving into, an all-over textured continuum of loose marks, finely drawn lines, traces and drips of thick impasto. At a stroke, these paintings announced the end of art’s formal divide between figuration and abstraction.

De Kooning was vehemently accused of misogyny, but announcing that “flesh is the reason oil paint was invented”, he continued to develop his ferocious images, amalgamating stereotypes from archaic fertility goddesses to 1950s cheerleaders and long-lashed, strawberry-pouting pin-up girls, with memories of his violent mother, a Rotterdam bar-owner, thrown in. The subject fuelled his strongest work through to the 1970s. At that point – the moment of feminism and its questioning of every aspect of the male gaze – the woman motif more or less disappeared from cutting edge art. It became taboo too as a subject for celebration: this is why Munich’s Women: Picasso, Beckmann, de Kooning, just opened at the Pinakothek der Moderne, is a brave, significant and provocative exhibition.

Munich’s excellent Beckmann holdings were the starting point, but stellar loans – a crop of Picasso masterpieces plus, among others, “Woman II” from New York’s MoMA , its gaudy follow-up “Woman V” from the National Gallery of Australia, and “Woman Accabonac”, the Whitney’s thrusting, high-heeled figure collapsing in a torrent of skin-pink paint into a landscape – have created a landmark show exploring how three 20th-century pioneers redefined portrayals of women. It offers a rare chance to see a range of top-flight de Koonings outside the United States, and to trace two separate relationships: between European and American modernism, and between autobiography and art’s formal concerns.

It is almost a cliché that Picasso changed styles when he changed lovers. Curator Carola Schulz-Hoffmann argues rather that every new stage in his oeuvre has the thrill of erotic discovery because he chose each woman precisely to facilitate it. On one level, therefore, this show works as a mini Picasso retrospective – beginning with St Petersburg’s great cubist “Dryad” (1908), an elemental, primitive, red-brown figure, based on the ample form of Picasso’s first mistress Fernande Olivier; continuing with such chilly, monumental, return-to-classicism portraits of his first wife as “Olga Picasso” (1923); ending with frenzied, graffiti-like late works featuring his second wife Jacqueline Roque.

Highlights from these are the Pompidou’s outrageous “La Pisseuse” (1965), where 84-year-old Picasso depicts Jacqueline urinating: a proudly erect mock-Greek figure, her sharp features grotesquely exaggerated; and the Beyeler Foundation’s grisaille nude with gigantic feet and breasts, “Reclining Woman Playing with Cat”, depicted from several vantage points in a paraphrase of cubism to suggest the old lover’s (futile?) desire to grasp the body completely.

De Kooning called Picasso “the guy to beat”; here we see Picasso respond to the younger artist’s savage sexiness and slang references. But “Reclining Woman”, with the sly, suggestive cat, looks back too, to Manet’s “Olympia” – as does Beckmann in “Studio (Olympia)” (1946). This bulbous nude with streaming blond hair is a fashionista posed as Olympia; Manet’s black servant is replaced with a black self-portrait bust, stony and rigid, enhancing the brightness and fleshiness of the nude, and resonating with women’s enhanced position in postwar society. Beckmann painted this in America when de Kooning was already working on his “Woman” series.

Munich unfurls such connections with a light touch and some distinctive perspectives. Today’s global art market, for example, favours Marie-Therese Walther above all Picasso’s muses: “Nude with Green Leaves and Bust”, where Picasso typically manipulates her curvaceous body and bland features into sensuous arabesques, fetched $106.5m last year and is one of several portrayals of the teenager – Picasso picked her up outside a department store in 1927 – dominating Tate Britain’s current Picasso show. But in Munich the star is her serious, tragic successor, Dora Maar, whom Picasso first noticed at the Café des Deux Maggots playing the ‘knife game’ - stabbing a knife between her fingers, inevitably drawing blood.

In Dora’s tense body and hunted expression Picasso saw the potential for an icon of suffering; soon he was slicing her up, into the angular distortions of “Weeping Woman” (1937), “Seated Woman (Dora Maar)” (1941) – knotted hands; fear-struck, violet-rimmed eyes; papery, segmented body penetrated by the black bars of the chair frame – and “Woman with Artichoke” (1941), where, a jagged, bolt upright figure in dissonant colours, she brandishes the outsize, spiky vegetable like a weapon of torture.

Less victim than timeless symbol of war, Dora chimes with Quappi von Kaulbach, the strong, independent-minded model who became a striking emblem of political resistance and emotional stability in Beckmann’s best works from the 1920s-40s. Beckmann married Quappi in 1925 and their wedding picture as a pair of clowns with a hobby horse, “Double Portrait Carnival”, expresses exuberance and, in the discrepancy between Quappi’s vibrancy and Beckmann’s passivity, his conviction that “I have a terrible power of negation in me. You have been chosen to convert this power into affirmation”. The bold outlines, shimmering oranges and purples, and theatrically flat picture plane, all contrast with the sober, melancholy post-impressionist double portrait in muted tones, also on display, with which Beckmann depicted himself and his first wife Minna in1909.

Streamlined, cropped, hands assertively placed on hips, sinuous body wrapped in white fur, Quappi is at first a liberated, modern heroine of the Weimar Republic, then a force against its dissolution. In Beckmann’s most celebrated portrait of her, the hieratic “Quappi in Pink” (1932-4), her make-up and nail-varnish – discouraged as decadent by the Nazis – are emphasised, and she clasps a cigarette (“The German woman does not smoke”) between elongated fingers. Twenty years later, Beckmann revisits that defiant elegance in “Quappi in Blue and Gray” (1944), painted in exile in Amsterdam. Quappi, now middle-aged, remains beautiful, strong, serene; her vitality is echoed by an enormous blooming plant at her side. It is an image that revolts against the reality of the Beckmanns’ daily deprivations and constant fear, and asserts that art and life will prevail – a perfect conclusion to a magnificent, upbeat show.

‘Frauen: Picasso, Beckmann, de Kooning’, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, to July 15; www.pinakothek.de

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