Feature

Gabriel von Max: Be-tailed Cousins and Phantasms of the Soul

The Prague-born German painter was obsessed with death and the occult.

Frye Art Museum, SeattleThrough Oct. 30

Was this guy on drugs? asked Jen Graves in the Seattle Stranger. That’s the question that came to mind when I recently visited Seattle’s Frye Art Museum and strolled 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.” Whatever the answer, the show provides a deeply likable look at the seriously eerie oeuvre of Gabriel von Max (1840–1915), a Prague-born German painter who was obsessed with death and the occult. Some of the pieces—like one painting of “a mythical woman who resembles nothing so much as a demonic pinup”—are real head-scratchers, quirky efforts that make you think, “So much technical skill, for that?” But Max’s oddball iconography unsettles a viewer in a way that postmodern painters sought to do more than a century later.

Most unnerving are the works that “dive deep into psychosexual turmoil,” said Michael Upchurch in The Seattle Times. Especially when such sexual tension crops up in close proximity to the artist’s interest in “the limbo between life and death.” Max’s “pale, sometimes peculiarly discolored female beauties often seem to have risen from the grave—or at least conducted their modeling careers at the morgue.” The 1869 work The Anatomist, the star of the Frye show, is “a morbid symphony of shadow and light: Behind the palely lit corpse of a young woman,” the title figure “sits almost consumed in darkness. With one hand, he lifts her shroud, about to expose her naked flesh.” In this and other intriguing paintings, Max seems preoccupied with the “extreme distress caused by sublimated sexual desire.” It’s all very creepy.

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