Coming Genius: the short art of René Beeh 1

René Beeh (1886–1922), The Revolution (1918-19), oil on canvas, 120.5 x 156.5 cm, Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg (MAMCS), Strasbourg, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The early twentieth century brought many bright stars, some of whom only burned so brilliantly for a few short years. Among them were Egon Schiele, who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, and René Beeh (1886–1922), who died just four years later from seasonal influenza. To mark the centenary of Beeh’s tragically early death, this is the first of two articles looking at his paintings, drawings and lithographs. The second will follow on 23 January, the day of that centenary.

Beeh was born, practised his art, and died in the European city of Strasbourg, in Alsace-Lorraine, in the borderland between Germany and France. When he was born there in 1886 – just four years before the birth of Schiele – Strasbourg was in Germany, following its capture during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Then in 1918, following the Great War, it was returned to France, only to be seized by Germany again in 1940, and liberated to France four years later.

Beeh trained first in the Fine Arts School in Strasbourg, from 1900, moving to Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1905. Among his teachers there was Franz von Stuck.

By 1910, he had completed his training and set off on his travels, first visiting French Algeria from 1910-11. He then returned through Italy and Provence in France.

René Beeh (1886–1922), African Hunters (1914), watercolour on paper, 57.5 x 47.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1914, just before the outbreak of the Great War, Beeh published an account of his travels in Algeria. African Hunters (1914) is a watercolour showing what appear to be French mounted Legionnaires in the hills there. His sketchy style gives this painting immediacy and authenticity, as if it had been dashed off when he was there.

René Beeh (1886–1922), French Legionary Being Stabbed by an Algerian (1915), pencil and watercolour on wove paper, 48 x 63.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1915, he painted French Legionary Being Stabbed by an Algerian, in watercolour. The member of the French Foreign Legion is in the centre, with a naked figure on the left, and an Algerian on the right, who appears to have stabbed the soldier in the chest with his right hand.

René Beeh (1886–1922), Brothel Scene in Algiers (1915), pen and watercolour on paper, 25 x 21.7 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

To accompany that, Beeh painted this watercolour showing a Brothel Scene in Algiers, in 1915. This follows a tradition from similarly rough sketches by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others.

Beeh was drafted into the German army as a surveyor, and served on the Ypres Salient, in Belgium and northern France. He continued to draw and paint when serving, although following the war suffered from depression and destroyed many of his works.

Dead Scottish Soldiers on the Battlefield near Ypres
René Beeh (1886–1922), Dead Scottish Soldiers on the Battlefield near Ypres, 1916 (1916), watercolour with pen and black ink on wove paper, 33.5 x 35 cm, The National Gellery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most important of those that survived is his watercolour showing Dead Scottish Soldiers on the Battlefield near Ypres, 1916. This shows the remains of three soldiers in shell-scrapes within the remains of a wood.

René Beeh (1886–1922), Trench (1915-18), charcoal on wove paper, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

He drew Trench in charcoal at some time in the period 1915-18 when serving near the front.

At the end of the war, Beeh returned to Strasbourg, which became involved in the German Revolution while undergoing its transition from being German to French. This occurred in November, when Marxist councils were formed following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on 9 November. For ten days or so, the city was claimed to be in its own republic. French troops arrived on 21 November, and by 5 December the Soviet of Strasbourg considered the city had returned to France. That was confirmed in the Treaty of Versailles the following year.

René Beeh (1886–1922), The Revolution (1918-19), oil on canvas, 120.5 x 156.5 cm, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg (MAMCS), Strasbourg, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Beeh’s largest and most significant painting of The Revolution was made over this period in 1918-19. Using earth colours, he shows a group of five men bearing guns. The working man wearing a flat cap on the left sits staring straight ahead, while one of the revolutionaries stares intently at him. There’s a strong feeling of unease, of imminent danger, as if the situation could easily flash up.

Beeh was already a book illustrator, providing illustrations for a celebration of the centenary of the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller in 1914. In 1919, he started work on a set of lithographs to accompany August Strindberg’s novel Inferno, which start the next article.