Framed by Politics
In the Art of Max Beckmann and Sandra Ramos, Context Is Everything
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page C05
On the surface of things, there's but a slim chance that a fellow born 120 years ago in Leipzig, Germany, would have much in common with a 35-year-old woman living in Havana today. But read on.
Content-wise, the artists in question -- German expressionist Max Beckmann, whose prints are on view at Robert Brown Gallery, and Cuban artist Sandra Ramos, who exhibits prints and paintings on paper at Fraser -- hardly merit comparison. In the shadow of two world wars, Beckmann made works peopled with the stark, architectural faces of Weimar-era Europeans. Ramos's pictures star a young girl often drifting in the ocean like her troubled island home.
Yet the products of both artists were, and are, fundamentally shaped by the politics of their day. A fact that holds true for plenty of other artists, it seems particularly clear in the works of these two. Both gained significant, even essential, creative power by channeling their own experiences. They'd be lesser talents without the political framework surrounding them.
Let's start with Beckmann. Trained in romantic and impressionist styles, he spent the first decade of the 20th century dutifully turning out canvases depicting the Gilded Age elite in a derivative, if sure, style. A few early prints on view at Brown, most from 1911, betray that academic past. "Open-Air Bath in Tegel" exhibits the kind of classical flourishes that academically trained artists wield with ease.
Then came the First World War. At its outset, Beckmann signed on to the medical corps as an orderly. A year later, in 1915, the artist suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged. When he resumed artmaking, his work changed radically. Figures were angled, scenes claustrophobic. Faces and bodies were stuffed into drawing rooms and cabarets. An increasing paranoia permeated the pictures, as if every scene contained a suspect -- guilty of what, we can't be sure. Casting his net wide, Beckmann portrayed the lives of everyday people as well as the daily lives of the privileged -- whom, from the look of his angled lines, he despised.
The horrors of war transformed Beckmann into an accidental activist. Life never looked the same.
Beckmann disavowed any political agenda. In a 1938 lecture, he denied any such leanings: "I have never been politically active in any way," he said. He may not have schemed or protested, but his art certainly did. If the scrawny, undernourished family saying grace in "The Hunger" isn't a comment on the dire straits of the German state, I don't know what is. Piously saying grace before a meager meal, the family embodies the absurdity of such rituals in the face of utter want.
What's beautiful about Beckmann isn't that he's got a single agenda. He seems borderline contemptuous of just about everyone, including himself. His pictures support multiple interpretations, though each in its way manifests something of the era's grim climate. Which may be why, when the artist depicts insane asylum inmates, they don't look so different from the cads and stuffed shirts ogling strippers at a nightclub. All this sharp commentary, I'd wager, derives from Beckmann's experiences among the bodies in 1914. Everything he drew or painted after that horror was seen through a dark lens.
Ramos may not have a pivotal experience to point to, yet she's been immersed, since childhood, in the struggles of Castro's Cuba. Though many contemporary Cuban artists similarly tackle their nation's strife, Ramos's work feels a little different: Her country's pain is exposed through a very personal iconography. Though making work that's nearly autobiographical -- almost all her pieces star an Alice in Wonderland-type girl who is modeled partly on the artist -- she draws a generalized critique of her country.
Again and again, Ramos presents the image of the young girl. With her long straight hair and wispy bangs, she seems the classic innocent, a fairy-tale child untouched by life's burdens. Yet this guiltless face is pasted, every time, onto a woman's body, complete with all the curves.
Such splicing of maturity and virtue sets up a profound disconnect, one that Ramos uses to underscore her country's dichotomies and limitations. When Ramos places the girl inside a floating bottle, like an SOS from a castaway, we get a sense of how hopeless Ramos and many of her countrymen might feel. Drifting idly, the girl embodies Cuba's listlessness.
Yet all is not grim on the Caribbean isle. Though its title sounds bleak, Ramos's "The Damned Circumstance of Having Water All Around" doesn't look quite so bad. Here, the girl-woman's body is shaped like the Cuban isle and floating languorously on the water.
The pose hints at the pleasures of separateness, of being removed from the global system. That isolation has its upsides only feeds Ramos's conflicts. Ramos remained in Cuba even as she watched her former husband emigrate. Though vexed by her country's problems, she's clearly wedded to them. She once said that leaving Cuba would change her art. She's probably right.
Certainly, Beckmann's disturbed reaction to the politics of his day gave the world some extraordinary pictures. Ramos is too young an artist for us to draw such grand conclusions. But her imagery has a way of sticking in the mind. And she, for better or worse, finds herself in a remarkable place at a remarkable time.
Max Beckmann at Robert Brown Gallery, 2030 R St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday noon-6 p.m., 202-483-4383, to June 26.
Sandra Ramos at Fraser Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Friday noon-3 p.m., Saturday noon- 6 p.m., 202-298-6450, to June 16.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Sandra Ramos. Casas Riegner Miami.
By Elisa Turner
Artnews / November 2003. (Page 166).
Water was the primary medium in a series of installations and the prints in Heritage of the Fish and intriguing solo show by Cuban artist Sandra Ramos. Two of the installations in particular suggested an existence saturated by marine heritage that proved to be both waterlogged and buoyant.
For those who live on an island as Ramos does (Cuba), water is a substance that nurtures as well as confines and kills. The shows title underscored this double-edged phenomenon with its reference to the poem Fishs Last Will and Testament an ode to Havana filled with melancholy, desire, and regret, by Gaston Baquero (1918-97), who lived in exile in Madrid after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
Ramoss Self-Recognition of the Fish (1997) is a life-size mirror cut in the shape of the artists figure. The work incorporates a black-and-white photograph of Ramoss face, while attached to her head, hands, and feet are small, mirrored aquariums fitted with dollhouse furniture and fish. Images f the artist and the viewer merged in this shimmering, watery construction, suggesting that the potential for self-realization is insubstantial and mercurial
Why does rain look like a flood of tears? (1999) was the most visually stunning. It offered a barely penetrable forest of hand blown glass vessels swollen at the base like drops of water, placed on the floor and suspended from the ceiling. Reflected within these vessels was the flickering realm of the gallerys surroundings. The installation gently merged metaphors for personal loss, suggested by the rain of tears, with shiny facets of an external ephemeral environment that would always remain integral to the brittle membrane of sorrow.
Ramoss newest work. Airmall: Mirages (2002-03) dealt with similar themes. Consisting of a hallway decked with ligthboxes on each side and video at the end, it resembled the inside of an airplane. Meant to represent windows, the ligthboxes each displayed a different object-a cordless phone, an engagement ring, and a house, among other things. Coveted yet inaccessible, the objects in their boxes parodied the American Dream.
Mexico City. Sandra Ramos. Nina Menocal.
Mary Schneider Enriquez.
Artnews The Cutting Edge. 1996
By transforming suitcases into powerful allegories, Sandra Ramos unpacks the plight and dreams of Cubans. A Havana resident, Ramos takes a valise and arranges radiant pigments, sand, spangles, and painted dolls inside it. The outcome is not only unusual and clever but also serious.
This artist has often relied upon the self-portrait to make emotionally charged statements. That idiom was very much present in her 1995 exhibition here, consisting of a series of works entitled Creatures of the Island.
Ramos used her own image as the medium of a playful and profound meditation on the fate of being Cuban. Valises, jewel boxes, and trunks held private possessions that were made to resonate with ideas. The series most powerful work, Creatures of the Island I, Mermaid, occupied a large trunk. Inside was a self-portrait of the artist as a mermaid underwater holding up Cuba, signified by green beads outlined with pearls. Filling the trunk was the mermaids pale blue chest, revealing a red heart and branching veins, and her beaded blue-and-white tail fin. Around this intriguing creatures torso Ramos painted fish with human faces, darting about in an underwater cityscape of high rises framed by soaring waves. This was a treasure chest whose value resided in the way the artist bore the tragic, yet multifaceted, destiny of her nation.
The ocean and the struggle of some Cubans to cross it into freedom repeatedly figured here, in works laced with ambiguity. Two small pieces, Arms Swinging and Without Illusions, poignantly portrayed this choice. In the first, a small chest lay open to reveal wooden dolls as swimmers: one, attached to the inside of the lid, was a male encircled by sharks; the other, fastened to the bottom of the chest, was a female surrounded on three sides by hills fashioned out of green beads suggesting a distant shore. Both swimmers appeared as a slice of body between blue waves, each cutting through the water with a wooden arm. Written above the two figures like the words used in an ex-voto painting is the bitter phrase to live deceived, as if the two were either swimming an ill-fated journey or escaping from an ill-fated existence, or perhaps both.
Without illusions made the futility of escape even more explicit. Inside a worn blue valise sprawled a small wooden doll painted in the colours of the Cuban flag, its eyes obviously sightless and its mouth agape. The figure has expired on the sandy ocean floor amid trailing seaweed and fish also painted in the Cuban national colours. The work is a painful expression of sunken hopes.
Ramoss art reverberates because it is neither all political nor all personal. It is at the same time seductive and deeply unsettling. Her talent lies in her ability to create original images while arresting the viewer with a fusion of private and public dramas.