Grand Teuton

Elegance and Desolation in MOMA's Beckmann Retrospective

And compare these two pictures with the touching double portrait from 1941 of the artist and Quappi on the street in Amsterdam, where they lived through the war in relative isolation. He's wearing a modest brown suit, with a scarf around his neck for warmth, holding a cane and a hat, inside of which the word London (the closest city still unoccupied by the Germans) is barely legible. She puts her hand on his shoulder as if to shelter him.

In Amsterdam he retreated deep within himself, painting hallucinatory images of a brightly artificial world in which birds torture humans, or sword-wielding croupiers, their faces insidiously lit from below, preside at fatalistic gaming tables. It's always night in these great pictures, where candles frequently flicker and burn out, as tenuous as hope or inspiration.

The show's catalog contains brief contributions by Leon Golub and William Kentridge, artists who share Beckmann's visionary concern with figuration, the fantastic, and politics. In his essay, Storr notes Beckmann's affinities with painters from Philip Guston to Jörg Immendorff. I would link him as well with contemporary practitioners of the "feminine grotesque"—Kim Dingle, Annette Messager, Rona Pondick, Kiki Smith, and others—whose violent or animalistic distortions of the female form also suggest a certain discomfort with the social order.

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


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

After teaching for a year in St. Louis, Beckmann arrived in New York in 1949. He and Quappi settled on the Upper West Side. In a final self-portrait from 1950, he appears worn from ill health, and the Old World intensity of his gaze belies his jazzy American getup: a blue jacket and orange shirt. Later that year, he went out for a walk to the Metropolitan Museum to see this work hanging in a show of contemporary painting, collapsed on a street corner, and died.

Did he have an inkling of this end as well? A Walk (the Dream), a surreal ink drawing from 1946, shows the silhouette of a man stepping blindly off a broken bridge and into nothingness. From such ruptures, Beckmann's art was born.

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