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.
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.
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.
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.