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Artists Max Beckmann
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Max Beckmann

German Painter, Printmaker, and Draftsman

Movements and Styles: Expressionism, New Objectivity

Born: February 21, 1884 - Leipzig, Germany

Died: December 27, 1950 - New York, New York, USA

Max Beckmann Timeline

Quotes

"...I would meander through all the sewers of the world, through degradations and humiliations, in order to paint. I have to do this. Until the last drop every vision that exists in my being must be purged; then it will be a pleasure for me to be rid of this damned torture."
Max Beckmann
"I believe that essentially I love painting so much because it forces me to be objective. There is nothing I hate more than sentimentality. The stronger my determination grows to grasp the unutterable things of this world, the deeper and more powerful the emotion burning inside me about our existence, the tighter I try to keep my mouth shut and the harder I try to capture the terrible thrilling monster of life's vitality and to confine it, to beat it down and to strangle it with crystal clear, razor-sharp lines and planes..."
Max Beckmann
"The artist in the contemporary sense is the conscious shaper of the transcendent idea. He is at one and the same time that shaper and the vessel."
Max Beckmann
"all theory and all matters of principle in painting are hateful to me."
Max Beckmann
"What I want to show in my work is the idea that hides itself behind so-called reality. I am seeking the bridge that leads from the visible to the invisible..."
Max Beckmann

"My heart beats more for a rougher, commoner, more vulgar art...one that offers direct access to the terrible, the crude, the magnificent, the ordinary, the grotesque and the banal in life. An art that can always be right there for us, in the realest things of life."

Max Beckmann Signature

Synopsis

After enduring a "great injury to his soul" during World War I, Max Beckmann channeled his experience of modern life into expressive images that haunt the viewer with their intensity of emotion and symbolism. Despite his early leanings toward academicism and Expressionism, he became one of the main artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement and created scathing visual critiques of the tumultuous interwar period. In later works, Beckmann strove toward open-ended stories that juxtaposed scenes from reality, dreams, myths, and fables. Throughout his career, he firmly opposed the turn toward abstract art and maintained his desire to "get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting." Beckmann's prowess at subtly layering figures and signs, as well as color and shadow, allowed him to successfully translate his reality into mesmerizing narrative paintings throughout his prolific career.

Key Ideas

Beckmann was a medical officer during World War I, an experience that instigated a drastic shift in his artistic style away from a traditional, academic technique towards a more critically engaged and expressive style of painting.
Beckmann deftly combined allegorical figures and images from reality in artworks rife with semiotic play that conveyed his individual interpretation of the cultural, social, and political climate throughout his career.
Beckmann was preoccupied by the desire for thorough self-knowledge and, in this pursuit, executed over 85 self-portraits in a variety of media. This continued refinement of self-representation underlined his firm, lifelong belief in the importance of the autonomy of artists and their visions of the world.
Beckmann experimented with the format of a triptych, or three-paneled painting. He translated the antiquated format, previously used only for medieval religious paintings, into the ideal support for his modern secular allegories.

Most Important Art

Max Beckmann Famous Art

Self Portrait in Tuxedo (1927)

Throughout the course of his career, Beckmann completed over 85 self-portraits. His continued practice of self-representation underlines the significance he placed upon the individual and the exploration of the inner self. Here, Beckmann presented the public with an image of a self-possessed artist, confident and proud of his career and ability. He easily conveyed the self-assurance of an artist at the height of his success through the casual pose, expression of indifference, and fashionable garb. Created at the pinnacle of his career in Germany, Beckmann situated himself centrally within the painting, and visually confronts the viewer head-on, staring right through him. The composition is structured by vertical and horizontal planes, as opposed the jarring diagonals of his earlier works, which adds to the air of stability and certainty of the overall work. The dominance of black and white not only add to the severity of the work, but also allude to the continued, eternal drama of the creation and recreation of the world in art. The straight lines, simplified forms, and areas of sharp contrast are typical of his work at this time and lend a harsh elegance to the painting. Beckmann illustrated his belief that artists were "of vital significance to the state" and "new priests of a new cultural center" in this self-portrait. Despite the calm conveyed by the artist's expression, the deep shadows provide the work with an air of foreboding. The contrast between the assurance of the artist and the sense of impending unrest resulted in a dynamic tension that Beckmann sought to portray within all of his work and which fueled the strength of his symbolism during the 1930s and 1940s.
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Max Beckmann Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Max Beckmann was born and raised in Leipzig, Germany, the youngest of three children in an upper-middle class family. His father, Carl Beckmann, was a grain merchant who passed away in 1894. His mother, Antoine Beckmann, relocated the family to Braunschweig, where Max lived with his mother and brother for the next several years. He attended a few private educational institutions, including a boarding school run by a Protestant minister from which he infamously ran away when he was ten.

Max showed an early interest in art, often disrupting class by making sketches and passing them among the students. His earliest self-portrait dates to around 1898 when he was just a teenager and demonstrates how dedicated Beckmann was to the visual arts at an early age. He was intent on pursuing a career in art and, despite his family members' protestations, applied to the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste (The Academy of Fine Arts) in Dresden in 1898, but failed to gain entrance.

Early Training

Despite the initial impasse in Dresden, Beckmann entered the Grossherzoglich-Sachsische Kunstschule Weimar (Weimar-Saxon Grand Ducal Art Academy) in 1900. Beckmann studied primarily under Carl Frithjof Smith, a Norwegian realist painter who instilled in him a penchant for the authentic representation of reality. The academy granted him a diploma with honors in 1902, and the following year he left Weimar for his first of many trips to Paris. While there, he encountered the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists firsthand. In particular, the works of Paul Cézanne left a deep impression on him.

Beckmann returned to Germany in 1904 and moved to Berlin, where he lived until the beginning of World War I. Paintings from this early period, such as Young Men by the Sea (1905), demonstrate the influence of the Paris visit upon his work, as evidenced by the light palette and careful arrangement of figures within the picture plane. Beckmann received an award from the German Artists' League for Young Men by the Sea that provided him with a six-month stay at the Villa Romana in Florence. While abroad, Beckmann also developed an admiration for the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the dramatic styles of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch, and his works shifted to an Expressionistic style as seen in Small Death Scene (1906). In 1906, he first exhibited with the Berlin Secession - a group founded by young, modern artists to counter the more conservative state-run art establishment.

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Max Beckmann Biography Continues

In the fall of 1906, Beckmann married Minna Tube, a fellow artist whom he courted while at the Academy in Weimar. That same year, Beckmann also built a professional relationship with Paul Cassirer, a leading dealer of modern art in Berlin and a Secession board member. Cassirer held a large solo exhibition of Beckmann's work and also published the first monograph about him in 1913. Throughout this period, his work was dominated by large narrative scenes. By painting the external world as he viewed it, Beckmann consciously positioned himself in opposition to the abstraction advocated by Der Blaue Reiter artists like Franz Marc.

Beckmann volunteered for the army at the start of World War I in 1914. Trained as a medical orderly, he worked in various hospitals until he was discharged in 1915 after suffering a nervous breakdown on the Belgian front. He moved to Frankfurt and resumed his artistic pursuits. His experiences of death and violence during the war had a profound impact upon his art, as seen in the awkward, twisted figures of Adam and Eve (1917) - one of the first paintings completed during his recuperation after service. The heavy, elongated lines and claustrophobic space that characterized Beckmann's new style received tepid reviews from critics.

Mature Period

Max Beckmann Biography

In August of 1918, Beckmann drafted a manifesto of sorts, in which he clarified his ideas regarding the contemporaneous tumult and indicated his intention to "be part of all the misery that is coming." He frequently used his art to engage with political, social, and economic issues plaguing post-war Germany, particularly in the context of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, which critically depicted the instability of Germany after World War I. Beckmann was widely recognized as one of the leaders of the movement and featured prominently in Gustav Hartlaub's 1925 exhibition survey at the Kunsthalle Mannheim.

Beckmann and Tube lived separately after the war and eventually divorced amicably in 1925. He married Mathilde "Quappi" von Kaulbach, a young opera singer, the same year and accepted a teaching position at the Stadel Art School in Frankfurt. Throughout the 1920s, Beckmann's work featured regularly in exhibitions around Germany and Europe, including a large retrospective at the Stadtische Kunsthalle in Mannheim during 1928. By this time, his style fluently incorporated elements from his earlier painting such as Adam and Eve (1917), but in more vivid, expressive colors. Neumann sponsored his first exhibition in the United States in 1926, and Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, included six of Beckmann's paintings in a group show in New York in 1931.

After Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany in 1933, Beckmann received notice of his dismissal from the Stadel School, and his paintings were removed from display in German museums. He left Frankfurt and returned to Berlin that same year. In the midst of an increasingly hostile atmosphere toward modern art within Germany, Beckmann created Departure (1937), the first of his famed triptychs. Beckmann and his wife, Quappi, moved to Amsterdam that year, the same day that the Nazi-sponsored Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit denigrating modern art opened in Munich. Beckmann never returned to Germany, and remained in exile for the rest of his life.

Late Years and Death

Beckmann lived in Amsterdam throughout the war and remained incredibly productive despite his displacement, executing numerous paintings, prints, and drawings. He received an offer for a teaching position at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis in August of 1947. Crossing the Atlantic with Quappi, Beckmann settled in St. Louis later that year. During the summers, he taught in Oakland, California, and Boulder, Colorado, and enjoyed the opportunity to tour the American countryside. He left St. Louis in 1949, when he was offered a position on the faculty of the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He and Quappi moved to New York City that fall. In December of 1950, Beckmann died of a heart attack while walking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see his Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950) on display, only one day after he finished his final painting, Argonauts (1950).


Legacy

Max Beckmann Photo

Beckmann's extraordinary artistic development throughout the two World Wars left an enduring legacy. As a teacher, his stress upon the importance of personal narrative was an abiding lesson for his students, both in America and Europe. Outside of his teaching practice, Beckmann's close proximity to many other artists throughout his career allowed for the exchange of influences among colleagues. Some of the earlier artists who were affected by Beckmann's oeuvre were his compatriots among the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, like George Grosz and Otto Dix. These artists shared their ideas regarding politics and art, each having a lasting impact on the others. As a teacher of young artists in America, Beckmann had a lasting and far-reaching impact. The Color Field painter Ellsworth Kelly was one of Beckmann's students and, despite stylistic differences, acknowledged an artistic debt to his mentor in a catalogue essay decades later. Although Beckmann replaced Philip Guston as an art teacher at Washington University, Guston learned much from the German expatriate's sensuous application of paint and stark narrative style.

The prominence of Beckmann's works within American museum collections further extended his impact on subsequent generations of artists. Portraitists working during the late twentieth century, like Alice Neel, clearly encountered his work and were stylistically indebted to Beckmann's unrelenting representations of sitters, particularly in respect to his use of hard outlines, his application of vibrant colors, and his frank portrayals of his subjects. Additionally, socially conscious artists like Leon Golub and William Kentridge also owe a debt to Beckmann's expressive technique as well as his interest in critically portraying the reality of his time in paint.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Max Beckmann
Interactive chart with Max Beckmann's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
Eugène DelacroixEugène Delacroix
Edvard MunchEdvard Munch

Friends

George GroszGeorge Grosz
Otto DixOtto Dix

Movements

ImpressionismImpressionism
SymbolismSymbolism
RomanticismRomanticism
Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann
Years Worked: 1904-1950

Artists

Philip GustonPhilip Guston
Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Leon GolubLeon Golub

Friends

George GroszGeorge Grosz
Otto DixOtto Dix

Movements

ExpressionismExpressionism
Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Modernism and Modern ArtModernism and Modern Art

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Useful Resources on Max Beckmann

Books

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

written by artist

Self-Portrait in Words: Collected Writings and Statements, 1903-1950 Recomended resource

By Max Beckmann and Barbara Copeland Buenger

On My Painting

By Max Beckmann

paintings

Max Beckmann and the Self

By Wendy Beckett

Max Beckmann Recomended resource

By Susanne Bieber, et al.

More Interesting Books about Max Beckmann
Vampires, Ghosts Haunted Max Beckmann During N.Y. Exile

By Catherine Hickley
Business Week
December 11, 2011

Chuckling Darkly at Disaster Recomended resource

By Michael Kimmelman
New York Times
June 27, 2003

The Fatalist Recomended resource

By Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
January 30, 2003

Grim Visions

By James Graff
Time
September 29, 2002

More Interesting Articles about Max Beckmann
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