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Beckmann, Maxlocked

(b Leipzig, Feb 12, 1884; d New York, Dec 27, 1950).
  • Christian Lenz

German painter, draughtsman, printmaker and teacher. He was one of the most important German painters of the 20th century. He was initially influenced by traditional styles, but during World War I he rejected perspective and classical proportion in favour of a more expressive objective art. He was persecuted by the Nazis in the 1930s but continued to work, painting his celebrated secular triptychs in the late 1930s and the 1940s.

1. Life and work.

(i) Early work, before 1914.

Beckmann showed artistic promise from an early age, painting as early as c. 1898 a Self-portrait with Soap Bubbles (mixed media on cardboard; priv. col.; see Lackner, 1991, p. 10). After training at the Kunstschule in Weimar (1900–03), he studied under the patronage of Julius Meier-Graefe in Paris. There he became acquainted with the works of the Impressionists, Cézanne, van Gogh and probably such early French paintings as the Avignon Pietà. From 1903 until the outbreak of World War I he lived mostly in or near Berlin. He began painting landscapes and from 1904 was inspired by Symbolism. This influence was soon replaced by that of Cézanne, for example in Young Men by the Sea (1905; Weimar, Schlossmus.). This painting also demonstrates Beckmann’s debt to Luca Signorelli, evident in the similarity of one of the figures, a piper, to a flute-player in the latter’s School of Pan (Berlin, Kaiser-Friedrich Mus., early 16th century; destr. 1945; see Lackner, 1991, p. 11). Signorelli remained a fundamental influence throughout Beckmann’s career.

In 1906 Beckmann married Minna Tube and had his first exhibitions at the Berlin Secession and the Kunstlerbund in Weimar. His most important works from this period are the large and ambitious figure-paintings, based either on traditional themes or on modern subjects with symbolic significance. Beckmann’s first influence in this direction was Lovis Corinth (e.g. Drama, 1906; untraced). However, his representations of fear, suffering and death in the private sphere (e.g. Large Death Scene, 1906; Munich, Staatsgal. Mod. Kst) were made under the formative influence of Edvard Munch. During a stay in Florence (1906–7), financed by his winning the Villa Romana Prize, he was impressed by the work of Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt (e.g. The Battle, 1907; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig). The painting The Flood (1908; priv. col.; see Lackner, 1983, p. 12) shows his anatomical understanding of male and female nudes. In such works as the Resurrection (1909; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.) and the Crucifixion (1909; Schlafer col., on loan to Munich, Neue Pin.) he showed his mastery of religious painting. He also turned to contemporary dramatic material such as earthquakes (e.g. Scene from the Destruction of Messina, 1909; St Louis, MO, A. Mus.). Such works followed in the tradition of Gericault and Delacroix and other 19th-century artists. Throughout these years Beckmann also painted numerous self-portraits and portraits (e.g. Countess S. vom Hagen, 1908; Dresden, Gemäldegal. Neue Meister), as well as seascapes and landscapes, in which man-made structures pitted against nature were painted with energetic brushwork.

From 1909 Beckmann regularly made prints, mostly lithographs at first, revealing his interest in illustration (e.g. Return of Eurydice, 1909, after verses by Johannes Guthmann; see Hofmaier, nos 7–16). By this time he was becoming known as one of Germany’s most important young painters, and in 1910 he was made the youngest member of the committee of the Berlin Secession, then under the influence of French Impressionism. He resigned in 1911, however, in order to concentrate on painting, and such works as the Sinking of the Titanic (1912; St Louis, MO, A. Mus.) reveal his continuing interest in contemporary subjects. In 1913 a one-man exhibition of his work was held at the Galerie Paul Cassirer in Berlin, and the first monograph on him was published, with a catalogue of his work. By now Beckmann stood in opposition to his contemporaries in the Blaue Reiter, who were increasingly moving towards abstraction, under the influence of Fauvism and Cubism. He publicly disagreed with Franz Marc in 1912 over the latter’s attempt to express ‘the inner spiritual side of nature’. Against this, Beckmann stressed the importance of ‘artistic objectivity towards the thing represented’.

(ii) 1914–c. 1932.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Beckmann joined the medical corps. He was discharged in 1915 for health reasons, but the experience of war brought about a profound change in Beckmann’s art: he rejected traditional perspective and proportion, creating a taut, airless pictorial structure of space and planes, with an absence of bright colours. Drawings and prints now became more important than painting in his work, with lithographs taking second place to drypoints and etchings. He executed numerous drawings, etchings and drypoints on war subjects (e.g. The Morgue, drypoint, 1915; see Hofmaier, no. 83), in which forms inspired by Cubism began to appear. His work from 1916 to 1918 also showed the influence of such German Expressionists as Wilhelm Lehmbruck, but Beckmann remained primarily concerned with objective depictions of external reality.

Max Beckmann: The Night, oil on canvas, 1.33×1.53 m, 1918–9 (Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

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From 1917, when he settled in Frankfurt am Main, Beckmann developed strong clear forms with highly expressive qualities influenced by early German and Netherlandish art, as well as by such modern painters as Henri Rousseau. The psychological strength of his work at this time can be seen in the frightening empty spaces of Landscape with Balloon (1917; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig) and in a series of religious paintings, including the Resurrection (1916–18; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.; unfinished), characterized by distortions reminiscent of El Greco, and the Descent from the Cross (1917; New York, MOMA), influenced by German Gothic painting. The Night (1918–9; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein–Westfalen) is the first fully developed painting of the artist’s new period: it depicts a modern scene of covert murder and torture with a cold palette and a sense of detail that contrasts with the bright colours and thick brushstrokes of Expressionism.

After World War I Beckmann also executed important cycles of prints, such as Hell (1919), The Fair (1921) and Berlin Journey (1922). In these Beckmann used urban subject-matter to present images of life as theatre, circus or cabaret, themes that also appeared in his two plays of the time, Das Hotel and Ebbi. Although Beckmann’s work is less explicitly political than that of George Grosz or Otto Dix, the Hell cycle of 11 lithographs expresses his disillusionment after the failed German revolution of 1918: for example The Martyrdom (see Hofmaier, no. 142) represents the murder of Rosa Luxemburg in 1919. In 1921 Beckmann signed an exclusive contract with the print-dealer J. B. Neumann in Berlin.

In the early 1920s Beckmann painted densely structured, brightly coloured paintings of figures, portraits, still-lifes and landscapes. The latter ranged greatly in mood. As well as painting Mediterranean scenes such as Nice (1921; Basle, Kunstmus.), he also produced disturbing urban views such as the crowded Iron Bridge (1922; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein–Westfalen;. In other works again, such as Landscape with Fishermen (1924; Bielefeld, Städt. Kunsthalle), an idyllic image of a Frankfurt park, he followed the naive influence of Henri Rousseau. Beckmann also produced compositions filled with human figures. For example, The Dream (1921; St Louis, MO, A. Mus.), originally entitled The Madhouse, presented various forms of misery with highly enigmatic imagery: this included such objects as fishes and trumpets, which appear to have symbolic significance. With such paintings Beckmann participated in the Neue Sachlichkeit, and he appeared in the movement’s exhibition in Mannheim in 1925. In the same year he divorced his first wife and married Mathilde von Kaulbach, and he was appointed professor at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt. As a teacher he stressed the importance of expressing emotional states through compositions dictated by reason and formal structure. In 1925 he also renewed his contract with J. B. Neumann, exhibiting at Neumann’s New Art Circle in New York in 1926 and 1927.

Beckmann made various journeys to Italy from the mid-1920s, which brought in some of his works a move to purer colours, more relaxed forms and brighter light (e.g. Genoa Harbour, 1927). However, even his Italian subjects had a darker side, as can be seen in the eerie emptiness of Viareggio (1925; both St Louis, MO, A. Mus.), and he apparently reflected the rise of Fascism in the horrifying Galleria Umberto (1925; priv. col.; see Lackner, 1991, p. 68), in which a mutilated body hangs upside down from a glass ceiling. At around this time Beckmann also increasingly used large areas of black and white in some of his most remarkable paintings (e.g. Large Still-life with Telescope, 1927; Munich, Staatsgal. Mod. Kst). According to his own testimony these colours corresponded to the drama of good and evil that he perceived as underlying life. Black and white also added to the austere formality of such paintings as Self-portrait in a Smoking-jacket (1927; Cambridge, MA, Busch-Reisinger Mus.) and again predominate in the Theatre Box I (1928; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.). A variation on Renoir’s Theatre Box (1874; U. London, Courtauld Inst. Gals), Beckmann’s picture is characterized by a harsh use of a narrow range of colours, together with thick brushstrokes and bold simplified forms. The painting was given an honourable mention at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 1929. By the early 1930s, a series of major exhibitions, including large retrospectives at the Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim (1928) and in Basle and Zurich (1930) together with numerous publications, showed the high esteem in which Beckmann was held.

(iii) From c. 1932.

Max Beckmann: Departure, triptych, oil on canvas, centre panel 2.15×1.15 m, side panels 2.15×0.99 m, 1932–5 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

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In 1932 Beckmann began Departure, the first of nine completed triptychs. However, when the Nazis came to power in 1933 Beckmann was declared a ‘degenerate artist’. A ban was placed on exhibitions of his work, and he was dismissed from his post in Frankfurt. His works in German museums were confiscated, and he moved to Berlin, where he thought he would be more anonymous. The Departure triptych was completed over the next two years. Influenced by Schopenhauer, East Asian philosophy and the cabbala, this work represents the possibility of deliverance from the ordeals of earthly existence. The dark, crowded, horrifying images of the side panels contrast with the bright, open central panel, in which a man, woman and child are taken across the sea by a hooded boatman. Beckmann also produced highly charged smaller pictures around this time, such as Moonlit Night on the Walchensee (1933; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig; see 1964–5 exh. cat., p. 62). From 1936 to 1937 he painted his second triptych Temptation (Munich, Staatsgal. Mod. Kst), often called the Temptation of St Anthony. In this work the side panels present images of worldly temptation, while in the centre an enchained youth of classical beauty contemplates a semi-nude woman in front of a black two-headed idol. In 1937 Beckmann’s works were included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, and he left for Amsterdam, where he lived until 1948 in increasingly difficult circumstances. In 1938 he gave a lecture entitled Meine Theorie der Malerei at the New Burlington Galleries in London. This accompanied an exhibition of modern German art held in opposition to Nazi attitudes to art.

In the 1940s Beckmann produced a series of important graphic works, including 27 lithographs, some hand-coloured, as illustrations to the Apokalypse (1941–2, published in Frankfurt in 1943; see Hofmaier, nos 330–56). He also made 143 line drawings based on the second part of Goethe’s Faust (1943–4; Frankfurt am Main, Goethemus.).

With the Apokalypse illustrations Beckmann openly referred to the situation after the outbreak of World War II, and this reference is also apparent in some of the drawings for Faust. However, Beckmann never saw the events of his age simply with the eyes of a politically committed artist, preferring to see them in the broader context of human history and culture stretching back to ancient times. He also referred to his own graphic work of the 1920s, revising pictures of that period or treating similar themes, as can be seen in the Faust drawings or In the Circus Wagon (1940; Frankfurt am Main, Städel. Kstinst. & Stadt. Gal.).

Max Beckmann: Beginning, oil on canvas, h. 69, w. 125-1/2 in. (175.3 x 318.8 cm), 1949 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876-1967), 1967, Accession ID: 67.187.53a-c); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/210009860

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Beckmann also executed numerous paintings, including portraits (e.g. the double portrait of Max and Quappi, 1941; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.) and images of mortality and violence reminiscent of the Vanitas tradition: for example Still-life with Skulls (1945; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.) and City of Brass (1943–4; Saarbrücken, Saarland-Mus.), in which he depicted a couple, apparently in a state of post-coital exhaustion, surrounded by swords and spears. He also continued to produce triptychs (see fig.), of which the brilliantly coloured Blindman’s Buff (centre panel 205×230mm, side panels 191×110mm, 1944–5; Minneapolis, MN, Inst. A.) and Argonauts (1949–50; Washington, DC, N.G.A.) are particularly important. Blindman’s Buff, Beckmann’s largest painting, contrasts god-like figures playing musical instruments such as a harp, pipes and drum with the confused crowds around a kneeling young woman and a blindfolded young man. The composition recalls Classical prototypes as well as religious triptychs. Argonauts also combines references to Classical mythology with other imagery, such as a representation of a painter and his model. Beckmann’s use of the form of the medieval altarpiece was intended to give an added solemnity to his often tragic images. However, the subject-matter, although partly traditional, was treated in a highly personal way and was often transformed; indeed Beckmann sometimes based these paintings purely on his own ideas and experiences. In 1947 he moved to the USA and took up a teaching post at the School of Fine Arts, Washington University in St Louis, MO. He held this until 1949, when he was given a professorship at the Art School of Brooklyn Museum in New York. He continued to win international acclaim, having a one-man show at the Venice Biennale of 1950.

2. Working methods and techniques.

Beckmann’s working methods were grounded in his early studies of traditional techniques. He placed great value on good draughtsmanship: during his academic training at the Weimar Kunstschule he learnt from the Norwegian painter Frithjof Smith to draw a preparatory charcoal sketch of the whole composition of a painting on the primed canvas. This practice remained with him throughout his career. His grasp of Renaissance techniques of depicting the human body can be seen in such paintings as Young Men by the Sea, which also demonstrates his more modern practice of plein air painting: indeed a photograph exists of him standing at his easel on the Baltic coast in 1901 (see Lackner, 1991, p. 10). His early formal experiments included modelling with thick Impressionist spots of paint (e.g. Self-portrait, Florence, 1907; priv. col.; see Lackner, 1991, p. 48), and Beckmann consistently resisted the attempts of modern artists, in particular such Expressionists as Franz Marc, to consider art in isolation from conventional concerns of technique and representation. In his early large-scale figure painting, he often used viscous brushstrokes and dark colours inspired by Lovis Corinth, and in 1912 he stressed the importance of the painting ‘material’, in particular ‘the surface of the oil pigment’, referring to the models of Rembrandt, Wilhelm Leibl and Cézanne. He also recommended in 1912 ‘the spirited structure of the line’ of Frans Hals. During and immediately after World War I he changed his modelling technique, defining forms with thick black lines, using only local colour. From 1925, however, Beckmann’s palette became far more luxurious, including rich blue (e.g. in the portrait of his second wife, whom he nicknamed Quappi, 1925; priv. col.; see Lackner, 1991, p. 18), red, green, yellow and black.

Throughout his career Beckmann produced significant graphic art. His drawing was practised with a wide range of materials, such as black and white chalk (e.g. Quappi with Candle, 1928; Basle, Kstmus.) and pen and ink (e.g. Faust Beholds Leda, 1943; Frankfurt, Goethemus.). The effects he created were various, ranging from the luminosity of the chalk to the vigorous linearity of the ink. Beckmann’s printmaking involved four techniques: the majority of his prints were in drypoint or etching, with also a considerable number of lithographs and rather fewer woodcuts. The prints were usually small-scale and monochrome, although Beckmann sometimes applied watercolour to his lithographs and woodcuts (e.g. Woman with Candle, woodcut, 1920; see Hofmaier, no. 171). His early work in drypoint, a medium that he developed from 1901, was often modelled with frenetic lines showing heavy burrs. From 1914, however, he produced strong compositional structures delineated by clear lines. The works varied from the strongly modelled Self-portrait with Bowler Hat of 1921 (seeDrypoint, fig.; see also Hofmaier, no. 180) to the two-dimensional linearity of Annual Fair: Shooting Gallery (1921; see Hofmaier, no. 194). The same stylistic and technical progression can be seen in Beckmann’s lithographs. His early examples of this medium, produced between 1904 and 1912, are characterized by a heavy tonality (e.g. the Bath of the Convicts, 1912—an illustration for Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead—see Hofmaier, nos 40–48). They contrast with the relative absence of modelling in the Berlin Journey prints (e.g. Berlin Journey: Chimney Sweep, 1922; see Hofmaier, no. 222) produced in 1922–3, which was a particularly fertile period for Beckmann’s printmaking. In 1924 the artist began to concentrate mainly on painting, and his subsequent works include not only oil paintings but also watercolours (e.g. the Rape of Europa, 1933; priv. col.; see 1964–5 exh. cat., p. 57). However, towards the end of his career he returned to the graphic arts, for example executing a set of 15 lithographs entitled Day and Dream, published in 1946 by Curt Valentin (e.g. King and Demagogue, 1946; see Hofmaier, no. 364). Once again economic, disciplined draughtsmanship expressed highly effectively Beckmann’s ambiguous, disturbing imagery.

Writings

  • ‘Gedanken über zeitgemässe und unzeitgemässe Kunst’, Pan, 2 (1912), pp. 499–502
  • M. Tube, ed.: Briefe im Kriege (Berlin, 1916)
  • ‘Schöpferische Konfession’, Tribüne der Kunst und Zeit, 13 (1920), pp. 61–7
  • U. Feller, ed.: Das Hotel: Drama in vier Akten (1924, rev. Gerlingen, 1984)
  • Ebbi: Komödie von Max Beckmann (Vienna, 1924)
  • ‘Über meine Malerei: Vortrag, gehalten in den New Burlington Galleries, London, 1938’, Werk: Schweizer Monatschrift für Architektur, Kunst und künstlerische Gewerbe [merged with Archithese to form Werk-Archithese], 36 (1949), pp. 92–5
  • M. Q. Beckmann and E. Göpel, eds: Tagebücher, 1940–1950 (Munich, 1955)
  • H. Kinkel, ed.: Leben in Berlin: Tagebücher, 1908–1909 (Munich, 1966, rev. 1983)
  • R. Pillep, ed.: Die Realität der Träume in den Bildern: Aufsätze und Vorträge: Aus Tagebüchern, Briefen, Gesprächen, 1903–1950, intro. by P. Beckmann (Leipzig, 1984)
  • D. Schmidt, ed.: Frühe Tagebücher, 1903/04 und 1912/13 (Munich and Zurich, 1985)

Bibliography

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  • J. Meier-Graefe: Gesichter: Vorrede zu einer Mappe mit 19 Radierungen von Max Beckmann (Munich, 1919)
  • C. Glaser, J. Meier-Graefe and W. Hausenstein: Max Beckmann (Munich, 1924)
  • Max Beckmann: Das gesammelte Werk: Gemälde, Graphik, Handzeichnungen aus den Jahren 1905 bis 1927 (exh. cat. by G. F. Hartlaub, Mannheim, Städt. Ksthalle, 1928)
  • Max Beckmann, 1948: Retrospective Exhibition (exh. cat. by P. Rathbone and others, St Louis, MO, A. Mus., 1948)
  • B. Reifenberg and W. Hausenstein: Max Beckmann (Munich, 1949)
  • R. Piper: Nachmittag: Erinnerungen eines Verlegers (Munich, 1950), pp. 11–53
  • G. Busch: Max Beckmann: Eine Einführung (Munich, 1960, rev. 1989)
  • H. M. von Erffa and E. Göpel, eds: Blick auf Beckmann: Dokumente und Vorträge (Munich, 1962)
  • K. Gallwitz: Max Beckmann, die Druckgraphik: Radierungen, Lithographien, Holzschnitte (Karlsruhe, 1962)
  • Max Beckmann (exh. cat. by P. Selz, New York, MOMA, 1964–5)
  • S. Lackner: Max Beckmann: Die neun Triptychen (Berlin, 1965)
  • C. S. Kessler: Max Beckmann’s Triptychs (Cambridge, MA, 1970)
  • C. Lenz: ‘Mann und Frau im Werke von Max Beckmann’, Städel-Jahrbuch, 3 (1971), pp. 213–37
  • F. W. Fischer: Max Beckmann: Symbol und Weltbild (Munich, 1972)
  • M. Franciscono: ‘The Imagery of Max Beckmann’s The Night’, Art Journal [New York; prev. pubd as Coll. A. J.; Parnassus], 33 (1973), pp. 18–22
  • C. Lenz: ‘Max Beckmann’s Synagogue’, Städel-Jahrbuch, 4 (1973), pp. 299–320
  • C. Lenz: ‘Max Beckmann: Das Martyrium’, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 16 (1974), pp. 185–210
  • C. Lenz: Max Beckmann und Italien (Frankfurt am Main, 1976)
  • C. Lenz: ‘Max Beckmann in seinem Verhältnis zu Picasso’, Niedert. Beitr. Kstgesch., 16 (1977), pp. 236–50
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  • M. Q. Beckmann: Mein Leben mit Max Beckmann (Munich and Zurich, 1983)
  • B. C. Buenger: ‘Beckmann’s Beginnings: Junge Männer am Meer’, Pantheon: Internationale Zeitschrift für Kunst [cont. as Bruckmanns Pantheon], 41 (1983), pp. 134–44
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  • M. Eberle: Max Beckmann: Die Nacht (Frankfurt am Main, 1984)
  • E. Göpel: Max Beckmann: Berichte eines Augenzeugen (Frankfurt am Main, 1984)
  • M. Gosebruch: Mythos ohne Götterwelt (Esslingen, 1984)
  • S. O’Brien Twohig: Beckmann: Carnival, Tate Modern Masterpieces (London, 1984)
  • J. Poeschke: Max Beckmann in seinen Selbstbildnissen (Esslingen, 1984)
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  • Max Beckmann: Graphik zum 100. Geburtstag (exh. cat. by C. Lenz, Esslingen, Gal. Stadt., 1984)
  • Max Beckmann Retrospective (exh. cat., ed. C. Schulz-Hoffman and J. Weiss; St Louis, MO, A. Mus., 1984)
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  • A. Franzke: Max Beckmann: Skulpturen (Munich and Zurich, 1987)
  • B. C. Buenger: ‘Max Beckmann’s Ideologues: Some Forgotten Faces’, Art Bulletin, 71/3 (1989), pp. 453–79
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  • J. Hofmaier: Max Beckmann: Catalogue Raisonné of his Prints, 2 vols (Berne, 1990)
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  • Max Beckmann: Selbstbildnisse (exh. cat., ed. U. M. Schneede; Hamburg, Ksthalle; Munich, Staatsgal. Mod. Kst; 1993)