Summary of Max Beckmann
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.
- 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.
Important Art by Max Beckmann
Young Men by the Sea
Executed when he was only 21, Young Men by the Sea demonstrates the young artist's solid academic training and thorough visual understanding of the body. In this large canvas, he portrayed several nudes in a variety of poses across the composition, lending the work an appearance of an advanced anatomical study. The composition and subject are a tribute to the work of Post-Impressionists like Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh, whose work Beckmann had encountered while in France the year before. The illusionistic space, size of the canvas, and monumentality of the figures all tie the painting to the academic tradition. Beckmann had yet to decipher his mature, individualized style that characterizes his later works. Despite the traditional nature of the work, Beckmann was able to connect his training with his own love of the sea. He was both awed and unnerved by the infinity of the oceans, and tempered the endless space of the horizon with the profusion of classical figures in the foreground. This conventional painting was greatly admired within the academies and museums of Germany. Not only did Beckmann receive the Villa Romana prize for this work, but the Weimar museum acquired it the following year. Although he achieved success with this early style, Beckmann later moved toward a more expressive mode better suited to the dramatic subjects he wished to portray.
Oil on canvas - Schlossmuseum, Klasik Stiftung Weimar, Weimar
Small Death Scene
Painted shortly after his mother's death from cancer, Small Death Scene not only recalls the artist's own experience of grief and mourning, but also bears the influence of the psychologically-laden work of the Expressionist Edvard Munch. The loose brushwork is indebted to the Impressionists, but the painting does not record the effects of light on a particular scene as observed by the artist. Instead, Beckmann reveals an individualized rendition of a group of mourners through the juxtaposition of highly contrasting tones of red, white, and black. This choice of charged colors heightens the emotional experience represented on the canvas, a typical Expressionist device. Focusing on the grieving figures in the foreground, Beckmann portrays features such as a starkly white face or a hand with tensely outstretched fingers in order to more fully convey the pain of bereavement. This painting illustrates Beckmann's move away from the monumental, historical representations common to the academic training he received and towards the depiction of small, private moments. The collapsed space, vivid palette, and emotional figures elucidate the growing influence of the Expressionist movement, which dominated the German art scene during the early-20th century, on his work.
Oil on canvas - Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Adam and Eve
One of the first paintings completed after his military service during World War I, Adam and Eve bears little resemblance to his prewar landscapes or large-scale narratives. The canvas is mostly devoid of color; instead, it is dominated by a variety of grays that lend the work a general tone of melancholy and create a shallow spatial dimension. The muddy tones similarly demonstrate Beckmann's shift towards moralizing images, in which every element, even the color of the paint, bears deeper meaning. The bright pop of the yellow lily and the serpent's red eye contrast sharply with the drab palette Beckmann used to portray the flat landscape and gaunt figures, drawing the viewer's eye to them immediately. These archetypes convey Beckmann's appreciation for symbolism and allegory; here, he uses the lily to allude to purity and redemption, while the fiery red of the serpent's eye emphasizes the mercurial nature of the devil. The two symbols succinctly narrate the aftermath of the fall of man, cycling through original sin to the promise of salvation.
Aside from the tonally symbolic schema of the painting, the jagged outlines, flat planes of color, and shallow space are the result of Beckmann's synthesis of a variety of sources. The brutal, twisted figures are indebted to medieval German artists like Matthias Grunewald and Hans Baldung Grien, who used similar depictions to represent pain and suffering. The appropriation of medieval styles and subject matter illustrates the Neue Sachlichkeit's drive to reinvigorate German tradition within the context of modernity. In contrast with the medieval influence, the organization of space on the canvas is clearly influenced by the compressed compositions of the Cubists, while the critical tone of the representation is tied to the social commentary of the Expressionists. Beckmann's incorporation of these varied movements resulted in the definition of a personal style and initiated the most successful period of his career. The resulting painting can be read as an allegory warning against the temptation of a reprise of the violence, cruelty, and destruction that plagued Germany during World War I. The dark outlines, disproportionate figures, and shallow space all serve to heighten this effect and later became hallmarks of Beckmann's mature style.
Oil on canvas - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
Self Portrait in Tuxedo
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.
Oil on canvas - Busch Reisinger Museum, Harvard University
Beckmann began painting Departure just before the Nazis came to power, and completed the work shortly after they deposed him from his teaching post in Frankfurt. Despite asserting in lectures that he was apolitical, this work reflects Beckmann's growing anxiety in face of the cruelty fostered by the rise of the Nazis. His preference for large-scale painting evolved during the 1920s and resulted in this, his first triptych. Beckmann utilized the expanded format of the divided canvas to emphasize specific moments within a larger narrative and to strengthen the impact of his tale of perseverance. Although the tripartite format originated centuries earlier during the medieval period for the purpose Christian devotional painting, Beckmann found that it was the ideal layout for his modern form of personal and social allegorical painting.
The dimly lit right panel of the triptych portrays a woman bound to an upside-down man, searching in vain for a path out of her current plight, thwarted by a drummer in front of her and a sinister bellhop at her rear. In the left panel, Beckmann represented several figures in a torture chamber with their hands bound, forced to submit to unspeakable acts of violence. The outer panels convey Beckmann's vision of the contemporary violence and brutality inflicted by people on their fellow human beings. In contrast to the dark vision of humanity in the flanking images, the central panel portrays the possibility of salvation for all. Four adult figures and one child occupy a rough wooden boat floating in an azure sea. A crowned figure with his back turned, the fisher king, grasps a net of fish and confers a blessing on the scene, while an ominous hooded man at the oars holds a fish - both allude to "the mystery of the world." On the other side of the boat, a woman, the Queen, clutches a small child facing the viewer, while the man sitting next to her, the King, is largely obscured. Beckmann described the central family to a friend by stating, "The King and Queen have freed themselves... The Queen carries the greatest treasure - Freedom - as her child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters - it is the departure, the new start." Beckmann traced an allegorical path through the darkness and suffering of daily life toward the light and freedom of redemption. He distilled the contemporary cultural climate of Europe into a transcendent message of hope, regardless of the era's tribulations. After this work, Beckmann completed nine more triptychs during the remainder of his career, all in a similarly jewel-toned palette and in a large scale suited to their grand, symbolic nature.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Originally entitled "Childhood," this painting is the most personally allegorical of Beckmann's triptychs. In it, he fused real and imagined memories from his youth to create an atmosphere tense with the contrast between fantastical dreams and lived reality. The right panel shows a classroom filled with students with a teacher at the front of the class, while two boys pass around a drawing in the foreground. This scene was inspired by an episode from Beckmann's youth in which he was reprimanded for passing drawings to his friends in class. In the left section, also from the artist's childhood, a child looks out a window at an organ grinder and the world surrounding him. The central panel depicts a young boy in military garb galloping on a rocking horse and brandishing a sword, as his slain Puss 'n Boots toy hangs on the wall. The boy's parents have just rushed up the stairs to survey the racket, while a clown-like figure hides in the closet - a common childhood nightmare. A voluptuous reclining redheaded woman, blowing bubbles with a pipe, dominates the foreground. Obstructing the boy's path to his fantasy woman is his grandmother, who reads a newspaper in the middle ground. Beckmann conveyed his own inner struggle through the clash between the imagery of the actual youthful exploits of a boy and his subconscious dreams and fears. The disjointed visual narrative of Beckmann's young life is also an allegory for the existential conflict experienced by many in modern society, who are torn between fulfilling all of their desires and their role within society. One of the last of his large triptychs, Beginning is the result of a mature artist in exile who stepped back to reflect and memorialize his personal history on canvas.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Biography of Max Beckmann
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.
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.
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.
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).
The Legacy of Max Beckmann
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Max Beckmann
- Self-Portrait in Words: Collected Writings and Statements, 1903-1950Our PickBy Max Beckmann and Barbara Copeland Buenger
- On My PaintingBy Max Beckmann