Grand Teuton

Elegance and Desolation in MOMA's Beckmann Retrospective

He was a towering giant; he was a humble refugee. During wartime, he suffered a nervous breakdown, but later he savored the good life in Paris and Saint Moritz. He created nightmarish images of torture and desolation, but in a famous self-portrait, he's supremely elegant in a dinner jacket and bow tie.

Among modern painters, he was the most German—the heavy black outlines hemming in his brilliant colors and the stark, twisted forms remind you of chilly afternoons spent admiring the stained glass and sculpture of Northern Gothic cathedrals. There's a bit of gloom hiding even in his beach scenes. And yet he left Germany, never to return there.

Max Beckmann and his wife, Quappi, departed from Berlin for Amsterdam in 1937, on the day after the opening of the Nazis' infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich. The show derided the decadence and quasi-racial corruption of modernism and other "cultural bolshevisms." Beckmann was the most heavily represented among the "art dwarves" (as Hitler called them) whose work it included: social satirists (Otto Dix and George Grosz), expressionists (Oskar Kokoschka), abstract painters (Klee and Kandinsky), and a host of lesser-knowns.

An indelible icon of Weimar sophistication: Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927), flanked by other self-portraits at MOMA
photo: Robin Holland
An indelible icon of Weimar sophistication: Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927), flanked by other self-portraits at MOMA

Details

Max Beckmann
Museum of Modern Art, Queens
45-20 33rd Street
Long Island City
Through September 29

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Beckmann (who had already been stripped of his professorship in Frankfurt) got the message. For the avant-garde, Germany was verboten territory. So he fled to Holland, where his visions of tormented kings, sinister birds, acrobats, and gamblers kept him company through the lonely war years.

"Max Beckmann," a retrospective jointly organized by the Pompidou Center, the Tate Modern, and MOMA (where it was curated by Robert Storr), presents the work of this singular artist, who founded no school, claiming allegiance only to history and his own febrile imagination. It's a strangely rich and heady affair. Beckmann read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, took notes on Jung's "collective unconscious," and dabbled in the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky. Gather several of his dense and recondite allegorical canvases together in one room, and they form an almost indigestible stew of associations. (At MOMA, they're leavened by the clear, monumental lines of his marvelous portraits and self-portraits.) But focus on any one and its lush, painterly surface begins to yield fragments of an obscure tale—the progress of a melancholy, ironic soul through captivity and across the darkness of the 20th century.

Born in 1884 to a bourgeois family in Leipzig, Beckmann began his career as a cultural conservative. But shell shock saved him from the oblivion to which posterity has consigned so many academic painters. He was 30 years old when he enlisted as an orderly in World War I. He had already shown a taste for disaster—in his first major canvas, The Sinking of the Titanic (1912), teeming masses of flesh vie for survival in the icy seas. "For me, the war is a miracle," he wrote to his first wife, Minna, from the Belgian front, "even if a rather uncomfortable one. My art can gorge itself here."

Instead, he fell apart; and when he patched himself together, the world appeared a wasteland. Self-Portrait With a Red Scarf (1917), painted while on medical leave from the army in Frankfurt, shows a haggard bohemian with haunted eyes, chewing his lower lip in the cold light of a winter sun; in the distance, a church spire rises like an angry dagger.

Beckmann seems to have stepped from the cacophony of battle with a permanent sense of life's unreality. The Night(1918-19), his early masterpiece, unfolds in the weirdly compressed, theatrical space that reappears throughout his work—here an attic, all angles and corners, that might have served as a film set for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). A woman wearing a corset, her splayed legs clad in red stockings, is bound by her wrists to the windowpane; a man, his head bandaged, smokes a pipe as he casually twists the arm of another man, who is hanging by his neck from the rafters. Anonymous hooligans round out the scene. Who are these sadistic midnight intruders—members of the German right-wing paramilitary, figures from the dreams of a combat-scarred soldier, or a premonition of things to come?

It may be just that Beckmann was a keen observer, and that in Germany between the two world wars, the writing was on the wall long before the fascists took over. Much has been made of the fact that he finished his epic triptych, Departure(1932, 1933-35), years before his own flight into exile. Two side panels, showing scenes of bondage and flagellation, flank a serene central image of a king with a woman and child being ferried out to sea by a hooded boatman. The work's sources—in neo-classicism, surrealism, Christianity, kabala, and East Asian philosophy, to name just a few—remain ambiguous, but its sense of spiritual deliverance is palpable.

Beckmann's paintings of himself are a fascinating record of his shifting stance in relation to society. Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927), created at the height of his renown (when he and Quappi traveled regularly to fashionable watering places and Paris) is an indelible icon of Weimar sophistication, at once intensely self-assured and tinged with self-mockery—the artist as demonic magician, à la Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse. Compare it with the Self-Portrait in Tails, painted a decade later. Here the loose brush strokes suggest a world out of joint, and the artist, standing on a terrace, regards us warily. From the amorphous mass on the street below him emerge several pair of black boots, aligned in goose step.

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