Portrait of Fridel Battenberg
Pencil on vellum
Inv. No. SG 3282
30.8 × 23.5 cm
Dating from the wartime summer of 1916, the Portrait of Fridel Battenberg is one of Max Beckmann’s most striking and most personal portrait drawings. In an extraordinary way, the depiction of the sitter conveys the intensity of the communication between the artist and his vis-à-vis. He reproduces her external appearance in extreme close-up, as if in a mirror, while at the same time provoking moments of pause for self-reflection and mutual identification.
The wide-open eyes captivate the artist’s attention. He gives priority to the intensity of this gaze over all other descriptive elements in the picture: the volume of the waved hair, the forceful nose, the narrow lips of the closed mouth, the modest necklace denoting the neck, and the sketchy allusions to the upper body. The slender arms are propped up, so that the strikingly rendered hands hold the head in position, at the same time narrowing the woman’s field of vision. In contrast to the immediacy of the decisively articulated face, the other lines and hatchings seem restless and nervous, as if the artist never wanted to lose eye contact with his model for a second as he drew.
The empathy that Beckmann successfully sought to express is inspired by the personal relationship between himself and a close friend. In this pencil drawing, he was intent on communicating both his awareness of a person’s inner values and an intimacy based on respect – a circumstance made all the more apparent by a comparison of this work with the drawing by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, where the approach is very different.
Fridel Battenberg (1880–1965) was the wife of the artist Ugi Battenberg (1879–1957), who had been a friend of Beckmann’s ever since they had studied together in Weimar. The couple lived in Frankfurt, and in 1915 they had taken Beckmann, already a renowned artist, into their home after he suffered a nervous breakdown while working as a volunteer medical orderly during the First World War. Beckmann lived with the Battenbergs at 3 Schweizer Strasse until 1919, and his friend gave him the use of an attic studio which continued to be his workplace until 1932. This close bond during Beckmann’s early years in Frankfurt is reflected in many of his sketches, drawings and prints as well as paintings, such as The Synagogue (1919) in the Städel.
Almost without exception, the Beckmann works in the holdings of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in the 1930s were confiscated as »degenerate« art in 1937. Over time, however, the Städel has managed to accumulate an outstanding collection of prints and drawings from the Battenberg collection, among them this portrait, which is dedicated to Titti, the cat.