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Artists Max Beckmann Biography and Legacy
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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

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 C├ęzanne 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.

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

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

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-20th 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.

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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