The Bunch of Grapes
Indian ink over pencil on ribbed hand-made paper
Inv. No. 16806 (Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V.)
26.5 × 37 cm
Denounced and persecuted by the National Socialist regime as a »degenerate« artist, Max Beckmann fled to Holland in 1937. There, in 1944, after almost seven years in exile, he produced this drawing with its extraordinarily powerful symbolism.
A humble horse-drawn cart is crossing a bridge reminiscent of the typical hump-backed canal bridges in Amsterdam. Accompanied by a blonde woman unrealistically positioned at his side, the driver has nodded off, while the horse between the shafts continues on its way. The vehicle has perhaps already made quite a journey, as is suggested by the canal-side roadway seen leading into the distance in a small space on the left. Its unusual load is partially hidden by an advertising column: an outsize cluster of grapes, to which the picture’s title gives further prominence and whose presence the artist has emphasized by repeatedly going over it with his pen, so that the fruit positively gleams. Beckmann will have drawn from his knowledge of the Old Testament for this highly individual adaptation: his isolated bunch of grapes recalls the huge cluster Moses’ scouts brought back as evidence of the fertility of the Promised Land (Numbers 13). A perceptive observer, Beckmann had no doubt noticed representations of this Biblical scene on many a house gable in Amsterdam.
In diary entries and letters Beckmann tells how he loved to go on solitary, almost melancholy walks along the city’s canals. In April 1944 he had just turned sixty, was struggling with a bout of pneumonia and plagued by insomnia and a fear of imminent conscription into the German army. In a town that was becoming more unsafe from day to day, he was confronted with his shattered hopes of emigrating to America.
In view of this difficult personal situation and the imaginative illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, Part II which he had just completed, the dreamlike image of the Cluster of Grapes takes on a metaphorical quality. In 1947 the artist took this picture with him to New York, where it passed into the possession of a close male friend of the Beckmanns’ who had already left Germany and emigrated to America in 1939.