In this, the first United States exhibit of the late 19th Century German artist Gabriel von Max, the Frye Musueum has brought us a range of stunning paintings, prints and drawings that speak to the intellectual ferment of that time. Max was an intellectual as well as an artist and his works reveal the cultural and scientific tumult of his era.
Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species…” had been raising eyebrows since 1857. Freud was revolutionizing the concept of “human” with his explorations of the unconscious and his insights into our sexual nature. Goethe’s “Faust” was part of the cannon. The American philosopher William James was caught up in the world of the occult. Sophisticates of all sort met for séances where they communed with the dead. And Max tried to capture all of this in his paintings.
Martyrs abound, and they are mostly nubile women, with mournful or ecstatic faces. In “Outside the Arena” a young woman appears to be deep in thought. We have to ask if she’s anticipating her own death or expressing sadness at the fate of the real sacrificial victims.
In “The Anatomist” an attentive gentleman lifts the gossamer cloth to expose one breast of the dead young woman lying before him. Perhaps his anatomical study is as satisfying sexually as it is intellectually.
There are any number of paintings of monkeys behaving in human fashion. We see drawings to illustrate “Faust.” Numerous religious images depicting saints and biblical stories reveal the continuing importance of the church.
In the generally dark colors so common in his time period, Max probably outraged some and delighted others. Now we get a chance to see what the fuss was all about.
Through October 30 at the Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; (206 622-9250 or fryemuseum.org)