After walking through a maze of paintings of martyrs, tigers, stigmatics, monkeys, lucid dreamers, wives about to eat husbands, and people who are neither entirely dead nor entirely alive, I had to ask: "Drugs?" "There's no evidence of it," said Jo-Anne Birnie Danz-ker, Frye Art Museum director. "He was bringing home dead carcasses from the side of the river when he was a teenager, though. It doesn't seem like he needed drugs."
The artist Gabriel von Max had his first brush with the other side as a young man. His father died in front of him, of cholera. The roadkill followed soon after, serving as drawing material. Von Max would eventually become semifamous in late-19th-century Europe for a painting called The Anatomist, picturing a coroner seated near his desk. Next to him is a dead girl spread on a table—the victim of a drowning, we find from the wall label. One of his hands is on his chin, Thinker-like, and the other is on the edge of the sheet he's pulling back to reveal her breast. It's his first glimpse of her sexual appeal, and he stops. Her eyes are not quite closed—you have to watch the eyes in von Max—and they act as the only entry point to the internal organs that are, unthinkably, waiting to be cut out from inside her glowing white skin. The anatomist seems not to know how to begin.
Unlike Thomas Eakins's contemporaneous painting of a dissection gallery, The Gross Clinic, von Max's scene is a private, inchoate interaction between the living and the dead. It takes place in a dark chamber, and it's not too much to say it's haunted by desire. Am I seeing correctly that the girl's left shoulder and exposed breast are painted at a slight angle, as though propped up toward the viewer? Or toward the artist as he worked, as if the girl were about to rise up under his touch?
Was von Max ever creeped out by being alone with his own paintings? I'm thinking of one in particular, which the Frye owns: an untitled portrait of a maiden from around 1900. She sits in a bucolic landscape, but her flesh is utterly gray. She emits mortification like a contagious disease, and she's not the only one in von Max's work—look for the dead flesh among the "living." Von Max had a heightened sense of death. At one point in his life, he held a prestigious professorship in religious and history painting, but he dropped it. Generally he went his own way, and he hasn't had a solo show in the US until now, though he's been dead since 1915.
There are times when, looking at a single painting by von Max, you think: So much technical skill, for that? One painting, which Birnie Danzker admits she considered not including, portrays a mythical woman who resembles nothing so much as a demonic pinup. Von Max could be just plain weird like that, or he could be pretty fascinating: He once painted his pet monkey with a decaying face, seated by a decomposing lemon. (Paired with a photograph of the actual dead monkey, it's quite sad.) His drawing of Faust is penetrating, with burning eyes oddly veiled, glaucomatic.
Why are we talking about von Max now? He's not about to rise to the level of the painters he admired, from Caravaggio to Rembrandt. In a given painting by von Max, you might find two figures in two different styles. Take his portrait of a muzzled puppy being rescued by a Pre-Raphaelite angel from the scalpel of a grizzled Rembrandtian vivisectionist (von Max was avidly against the practice of cutting up live animals for research). Attempting to connect the dots of von Max's oddness, you might consider that late-20th-century painters resuscitated just this kind of technical sampling as a postmodern form.
But the Frye's survey by Birnie Danzker, Gabriel von Max: Be-tailed Cousins and Phantasms of the Soul, is likable in part because it is so uneven. Unlike Seattle Art Museum, which has sometimes projected a self-importance that doesn't match its holdings, the Frye has gone a different direction in recent years, exploring in depth and emphasizing the eccentricities of its truly eccentric collection. (This has been thanks to the creative vision of two powerfully strong, ambitious, and motivated women at the Frye, Robin Held and Birnie Danzker—sometimes it's hard to believe there's room for them both at the same museum.)
There are moments in Be-tailed Cousins when Birnie Danzker seems to be attempting to make a case for The Importance of von Max. Skip those moments and just look at the 36 paintings (borrowed widely from European institutions, sometimes in coups, as in The Anatomist), and the drawings, woodcuts, and photographs von Max took at séances. He was an agnostic in all ways, but kept attending occult events, trying to find that other, hidden side, like a psychedelic seeker of the 1960s. He traveled to the convalescent rooms where women had been said to bleed from the hands or suffer extreme migraines while seeing visions. Again, the psychedelic connection is strong; von Max's paintings, while conventional in some ways, are intended to take place not on the surface of the canvas but in some other place, whether between the subjects or in the viewer.
Birnie Danzker has done some neat history work in the hardcover catalog, printing von Max's early drawing of a Christ whose eyes appeared to be open and then closed depending on where you stood (he later called it a joke), as well as von Max's earliest intentions for The Christian Martyr, a painting the Frye owns (it's one of three versions). It pictures a pretty young woman, beatifically crucified (no signs of agony), with an attractive young man at her feet. You might pass right over this painting today; you probably have, at the Frye. But for what it's worth, women of the day wept when they looked at it. It might have caused a very different sensation—the martyr was originally supposed to have sported a beard, Birnie Danzker discovered. Von Max meant her to personify the story of the saint who grows a beard to avoid having to marry an earthly husband (a preparatory drawing is in the catalog). Evidently his teacher told him to stick with the pretty girl, no beard. I'll never look at The Christian Martyr the same way again.
You'll notice that von Max's eclectic 19th-century visions—he lived from 1840 to 1915—are from the same time as Seattle Art Museum's Beauty & Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration, where the refined 19th-century American landscapes are infused with the highfalutin aspirations of Manifest Destiny, and all that means for the West we now live in. The billboard ads for Beauty & Bounty read, "Come see proper paintings." You might consider von Max's paintings improper.