Published: August 26, 2003
A towering figure in Twentieth Century art, Max Beckmann was a leading modernist artist who followed a distinctively individualistic path in a prolific career that spanned 50 years. While he never led a school nor spelled out a particular stylistic approach, he had a profound impact on the art of his era, and continues to influence artists to this day. An innovator throughout his career, Beckmann constantly tested his work against that of his contemporaries and continuously altered his style and subject matter.
A naturalist and symbolist at the outset, he reacted sharply to the horrors of World War I, denounced the degradation of German society between the wars, railed against the excesses of Nazi Germany, and infused his powerful art with a spiritualism and respect for traditional aesthetic verities that set him apart from others.
Perhaps best known today for his monumental triptychs, Beckmann also created a large body of individual canvases, insightful self-portraits and accomplished prints. His oeuvre is at once histrionic, moving, enigmatic, memorable, challenging and enduring.
This grand exhibition, showcasing all facets of Beckmann’s art, does justice to the complex and appealing work of a man The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called (in 1992) “probably the greatest German artist of this century.” “Max Beckmann,” currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, comprises 107 works and focuses primarily on paintings – including four large-scale triptychs – augmented by drawings, prints and sculpture. The show has been jointly organized by MoMA, the Musée national d’art moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and Tate Modern in London. The curator in New York is Robert Storr, MoMA’s former senior curator, who now teaches at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and who contributed to the very useful accompanying catalog.
Born in Leipzig, Beckmann (1884-1950) was the third child of a flour merchant and real estate agent who died when Max was 10. At the age of 16, Beckmann began art studies at Kunstschule in Weimar. In 1906 he married Minna Tube, a fellow art student.
While renting a studio in Paris, 1903-1904, Beckmann came under the sway of the paintings of Paul Cézanne. Moving to Berlin in 1904, he began his career as an artist in earnest.
In his early 20s, Beckmann achieved some success with his paintings. He said his artistic ambition was to do plein air paintings on modern subjects infused with respect for tradition – “monumental impressionism” as he called it.
Among the notable works of this early period are vigorously painted representations of fear, suffering, death and family relationships. “Small Death Scene,” 1906, shows family members, including Beckmann, gathered outside the bedroom in which his mother is dying of cancer. “Conversation,” 1908, which looks like a Baroque family portrait, features his pregnant wife and her mother in the foreground with the painter distanced in the background. These canvases suggest the formative influence of the emotion-filled art of Edvard Munch.
Beckmann was an artist of enormous ambition, as shown by grandiose and mythological subjects he took on throughout his career. The eye-popper of the early section of the exhibition is the immense – nearly 9- by 11-foot – “Sinking of the Titanic,” 1912. This busy composition depicts numerous figures seeking refuge on six overcrowded lifeboats as the purportedly unsinkable luxury liner and a menacing iceberg loom in the background. In this ambitious work the young painter sought, with only modest success, to emulate the drama, chaos and calamity of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa,” 1819.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Beckmann joined the medical corps, but his exposure to the brutality of combat triggered a nervous breakdown and he was discharged in 1915. This shattering experience brought about profound changes in his style and subjects. Eschewing traditional perspective and proportion, he began creating taut, airless, often claustrophobic images in dark colors. In terms of themes, according to Anette Kruszynski in the exhibition catalog, “Now he wanted to offer his fellow human beings moral support – helping them to create a better world – through art that was founded on a notion of social salvation.”
In 1917 Beckmann settled in Frankfort am Main, where he later took a teaching post at the Stadelschule. Beckmann described his new pictorial language as “transcendental objectivity.” For a time he was identified with the movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), but he soon distanced himself from that group.
All this, along with his unease about postwar German life, was reflected in the excruciatingly horrific “The Night,” 1918-19, filled with contorted bodies and anguished faces of a man and woman being tortured by a gang of sadistic intruders. The exact situation is unclear, but the effect of the picture is unmistakably horrifying.
“Matching the hideousness of medieval martyrdom paintings and crucifixions, Beckmann describes the atrocities of modern civil war with pointed political ambiguity,” says curator Storr about “The Night.” This brutal, emotional vignette is an unforgettable, if not nightmarish, painting.
Although less horrifying and grotesque, other canvases of this period, such as MoMA’s “Family Portrait,” 1920, with its collection of eccentric characters, are also given added impact because of their sharp angles, distorted perspectives and congested compositions.
In the postwar years Beckmann began creating drypoints, etchings, lithographs and woodcuts. Many of his finest prints, included in the exhibition, represent compelling artistic reactions to the tumultuous decades of the first half of the Twentieth Century. In the tradition of Goya and Hogarth, Beckmann conveyed his personal vision of such issues as the horrifying impact of two world wars, the brutality of humanity, the excesses of Weimar and Nazi Germany, tensions between men and women, the alienation of the individual and the underlying concept that life itself is tragicomic theater.
The exhibition contains nearly 20 of the roughly 80 self-portraits Beckmann executed over the course of a half century. “Only Picasso, among major artists in…[the Twentieth Century] treated self-portraiture with similar devotion,” says Kimmelman. Beckmann depicted himself in diverse, often unusual roles.
In the earliest likeness in the show, “Self-Portrait with Red Scarf,” 1917, Beckmann presented himself as a sort of Bohemian Parisian artist working at his easel. It suggests his intense commitment to his career and his interest in avant-garde art.
In 1925 Beckmann divorced his first wife and married Mathilde (“Quappi”) von Kaulbach, who eased his entrée into German and Austrian aristocratic society – potential patrons. Both his new style and elevated social status were reflected in the striking “Self-Portrait with Tuxedo,” 1927, in which he depicted himself as a stocky, confident, high society figure staring directly at the viewer. It is from the collection of the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University.
While early in his career Beckmann dismissed Henri Matisse as a mere decorative artist, he seems to have learned from the French master how to use color for expressive purposes. The sumptuous and vibrant tones of Beckmann’s mature paintings, often using pure colors (including black), mark him as a master colorist.
This is apparent from works generated by sojourns in Italy, including his honeymoon with Quappi, when he painted with lighter, purer colors, more relaxed forms and brighter light. “The Harbour of Genoa,” 1927 offers a simplified black, white and blue-green view from a balcony overlooking the city and its busy port. “Galleria Umberto,” 1925, a complex, congested view of figures in a flooded interior, reflected the rise of Italian Fascism, three years after Benito Mussolini came to power.
Around the same time Beckmann used large swatches of black and white in a number of works, such as “Still Life with Fallen Candles,” 1929, a firmly brushed, Cézannesque image.
In 1932, nearing the top of his game, the artist began work on one of his most significant paintings, “Departure,” 1932-33, a prize in MoMA’s permanent collection and the first of nine completed triptychs. (Seven are in American collections.)
This multipanel format, involving three separate paintings side-by-side, dates back to medieval altarpieces and represented a continuing tradition in German art. This format allowed the painter to address different aspects of a subject at one and the same time. “[M]ore than perhaps any other artist,” says Kruszynski, “Beckmann knew how to use the traditional features and motifs of sacred art to give his own themes added impact.”
“Departure” seems to suggest the possibility of deliverance from the ordeals of earthly existence. In the left-hand panel, graphic tortures reminiscent of “The Night” are depicted, while in the right-hand panel a solemn, apparently oblivious drummer marches by a scene of violence. These dark, crowded, horrifying images contrast with the bright, open central panel, in which a man and a Madonnalike woman holding a child are taken across the sea by a hooded boatman. Measuring 843/4 by 453/8 inches, this complex and compelling work demands extended viewer attention – and leaves a lasting impression.
Around this time the artist also explored the world of mythology, exemplified by highly personal, often enigmatic, images such as “Journey on the Fish,” 1934. This canvas, said one observer, “superimposes Christian and pagan iconographies.”
By the early 1930s Beckmann was at the height of his artistic powers and reputation. Several major, international exhibitions and publications documented the high esteem in which he was held not only in Germany, but in Europe and the United States. The seizure of power in Germany by the National Socialists in 1933 and Adolf Hitler’s ascent to leadership, however, profoundly affected Beckmann’s personal and artistic fortunes. As part of a program of cultural cleansing – and repression – the Nazis mounted increasingly hostile attacks on practitioners of modern art.
In 1937 more than 600 of Beckmann’s works were confiscated from German museums. With ten paintings and 12 prints he was the most heavily represented artist in the infamous, polemical, anti-modernist “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition mounted by the Nazis later that year. The day the “Degenerate Art” show opened, realizing that time had run out, Beckmann and his wife boarded a train in Berlin and fled to Holland. He never returned to Germany.
For the next ten years the artist lived in forced exile in Amsterdam, including especially trying times during the Nazi occupation during World War II. In spite of the hardships, Beckmann responded to the wartime trauma with a surge of intense creativity.
In all, Beckmann created some 250 paintings, including five monumental triptychs, along with extensive cycles of prints and drawings, during his years in the Netherlands. An early, characteristically energetic masterpiece is “Hell of the Birds,” 1938, in which garish, rapacious birds savagely attack humans. A thinly veiled condemnation of Nazi brutalities, this violent image puts one in mind of the fevered work of Hieronymous Bosch.
“Acrobat on a Trapeze,” 1940, a tightly focused view of a performer poised high above the circus ring, seems to mirror Beckmann’s wartime balancing act as he sought to survive Gestapo surveillance, British bombing raids, food shortages and the need to maintain a low profile in order to continue his creative output.
In his Amsterdam triptychs he often blended references to his current, perilous existence with efforts to convey more enduring, universal verities. “Beckmann…wanted to elevate the capricious, ephemeral events of the present onto a visionary plane which would reflect eternal truths,” writes Lloyd.
“Actors,” 1941-42, a 783/4- by 331/4-inch triptych, consists of two smaller panels flanking a larger central panel. They teem with performers, stage hands, orchestra musicians and spectators on and off the stage. This enigmatic work is said to have been inspired by one of Beckmann’s favorite novels, Titan, 1846, by Jean Paul (pseudonym of Jean Paul Richter) and by the artist’s dreams.
With the end of the war Beckmann fulfilled a long-held dream to emigrate to the United States. In 1947 he accepted a teaching position at Washington University in St Louis, filling in for artist Philip Guston, who was on sabbatical. During the two years in St Louis, Beckmann taught student art classes (with his wife acting as interpreter), lectured widely, made friends in the American art world and worked in a studio on campus.
Several exhibitions of his art were well received around the country, most importantly a large traveling show organized by Perry T. Rathbone, director of the City Art Museum in St Louis. (Today known as the Saint Louis Art Museum, it is the largest repository of Beckmann’s work anywhere – 40 paintings, 439 prints, 19 drawings and a sculpture.)
In the fall of 1949 Beckmann and Quappi moved to Manhattan and he started teaching at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He gave talks and taught in various cities, received prizes and accolades for exhibitions and applied for American citizenship.
Among the highlights of his output in the United States are a typically complex triptych, “The Argonauts,” 1949-50, “Woman with Mandolin in Yellow and Red,” 1950, depicting a sexy, voluptuous young woman, and “Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket,” 1950, in which he puffs on a cigarette.
The day after finishing “The Argonauts,” Beckmann left his apartment on West 69th Street to walk through Central Park to see an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the corner of 61st Street and Central Park West he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
The journey from his native Germany to Italy to France to Holland and finally to America was over. In the course of a long and productive career, Beckmann consistently defied convention, absorbed themes and motifs from art of the past and present, and evolved a series of idiosyncratic styles that he applied to a memorable, unique oeuvre. This exhibition confirms Max Beckmann’s power and genius and solidifies his standing among the giants of Twentieth Century art.
The fully illustrated catalog is edited by Sean Rainbird, senior curator at the Tate. Its 293 pages contain essays by American, British and German Beckmann authorities, utilizes new research, has 174 color and 40 black and white illustrations, a chronology and select bibliography published by MoMA and priced at $35 softcover.
The Museum of Modern Art in Queens (MoMA QNS) is at 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard in Long Island City. For information, 212-708-9400 or www.moma.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm