Max Beckmann, photograph by Hans Möller, 1922
|Born||(1884-02-12)February 12, 1884|
Leipzig, Province of Saxony, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire
|Died||December 27, 1950(1950-12-27) (aged 66)|
New York City, New York, United States
|Notable work||Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery|
Max Beckmann (February 12, 1884 – December 27, 1950) was a German painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer. Although he is classified as an Expressionist artist, he rejected both the term and the movement. In the 1920s, he was associated with the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), an outgrowth of Expressionism that opposed its introverted emotionalism.
Max Beckmann was born into a middle-class family in Leipzig, Saxony. From his youth he pitted himself against the old masters. His traumatic experiences of World War I, in which he volunteered as a medical orderly, coincided with a dramatic transformation of his style from academically correct depictions to a distortion of both figure and space, reflecting his altered vision of himself and humanity.
He is known for the self-portraits painted throughout his life, their number and intensity rivaled only by those of Rembrandt and Picasso. Well-read in philosophy and literature, Beckmann also contemplated mysticism and theosophy in search of the "Self". As a true painter-thinker, he strove to find the hidden spiritual dimension in his subjects (Beckmann's 1948 Letters to a Woman Painter provides a statement of his approach to art).
Beckmann enjoyed great success and official honors during the Weimar Republic. In 1925 he was selected to teach a master class at the Städelschule Academy of Fine Art in Frankfurt. Some of his most famous students included Theo Garve, Leo Maillet and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. In 1927 he received the Honorary Empire Prize for German Art and the Gold Medal of the City of Düsseldorf; the National Gallery in Berlin acquired his painting The Bark and, in 1928, purchased his Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. 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.
His fortunes changed with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, whose dislike of Modern Art quickly led to its suppression by the state. In 1933, the Nazi government called Beckmann a "cultural Bolshevik" and dismissed him from his teaching position at the Art School in Frankfurt. In 1937 the government confiscated more than 500 of his works from German museums, putting several on display in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. The day after Hitler's radio speech about degenerate art in 1937, Beckmann left Germany with his second wife, Quappi, for The Netherlands.
For ten years, Beckmann lived in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, failing in his desperate attempts to obtain a visa for the United States. In 1944 the Germans attempted to draft him into the army, although the sixty-year-old artist had suffered a heart attack. The works completed in his Amsterdam studio were even more powerful and intense than the ones of his master years in Frankfurt. They included several large triptychs, which stand as a summation of Beckmann's art.
After the war, Beckmann moved to the United States. During the last three years of his life, he taught at the art schools of Washington University in St. Louis (with the German-American painter and printmaker Werner Drewes) and the Brooklyn Museum. He came to St. Louis at the invitation of Perry T. Rathbone, who was director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Rathbone arranged for Washington University in St. Louis to hire Beckmann as an art teacher, filling a vacancy left by Philip Guston, who had taken a leave. The first Beckmann retrospective in the United States took place in 1948 at the City Art Museum, Saint Louis. In St. Louis, Morton D. May became his patron and, already an avid amateur photographer and painter, a student of the artist. May later donated much of his large collection of Beckmann's works to the St. Louis Art Museum. Beckmann also helped him learn to appreciate Oceanian and African art. After stops in Denver and Chicago, he and Quappi took an apartment at 38 West 69th Street in Manhattan. In 1949 he obtained a professorship at the Art School of New York's Brooklyn Museum.
He suffered from angina pectoris and died after Christmas 1950, struck down by a heart attack at the corner of 69th Street and Central Park West in New York, not far from his apartment building. As the artist’s widow recalled, he was on his way to see one of his paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beckmann had a one-man show at the Venice Biennale of 1950, the year of his death.
Unlike several of his avant-garde contemporaries, Beckmann rejected non-representational painting; instead, he took up and advanced the tradition of figurative painting. He greatly admired not only Cézanne and Van Gogh, but also Blake, Rembrandt, and Rubens, as well as Northern European artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, such as Bosch, Bruegel, and Matthias Grünewald. His style and method of composition are partially rooted in the imagery of medieval stained glass.
Engaging with the genres of portraiture, landscape, still life, and history painting, his diverse body of work created a very personal but authentic version of modernism, one with a healthy deference to traditional forms. Beckmann reinvented the religious triptych and expanded this archetype of medieval painting into an allegory of contemporary humanity.
From his beginnings in the fin de siècle to the period after World War II, Beckmann reflected an era of radical changes in both art and history in his work. Many of Beckmann‘s paintings express the agonies of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Some of his imagery refers to the decadent glamor of the Weimar Republic's cabaret culture, but from the 1930s on, his works often contain mythologized references to the brutalities of the Nazis. Beyond these immediate concerns, his subjects and symbols assume a larger meaning, voicing universal themes of terror, redemption, and the mysteries of eternity and fate.
Many of Beckmann's late paintings are displayed in American museums. He exerted a profound influence on such American painters as Philip Guston and Nathan Oliveira. His posthumous reputation perhaps suffered from his very individual artistic path; like Oskar Kokoschka, he defies the convenient categorization that provides themes for critics, art historians and curators. Other than a major retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1964–65 (with an excellent catalogue by Peter Selz), and MoMA's prominent display of the triptych Departure, his work was little seen in much of the United States for decades. His 1984 centenary was marked in the New York area only by a modest exhibit at Nassau County's suburban art museum. The Saint Louis Art Museum holds the largest public collection of Beckmann paintings in the world and held a major exhibition of his work in 1998.
Since the late 20th century, Beckmann's work has gained an increasing international reputation. There have been retrospectives and exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (1995) and the Guggenheim Museum (1996) in New York, and the principal museums of Rome (1996), Valencia (1996), Madrid (1997), Zurich (1998), Munich (2000), Frankfurt (2006) and Amsterdam (2007). In Spain and Italy, Beckmann's work has been accessible to a wider public for the first time. A large-scale Beckmann retrospective was exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2002) and Tate Modern in London (2003). In 2011, the Städel in Frankfurt devoted an entire room to the artist in its newly fitted permanent exhibition of modern art.
In 1996, Piper, Beckmann's German publisher, released the third and last volume of the artist’s letters, whose wit and vision rank him among the strongest writers of the German tongue. His essays, plays and, above all, his diaries are also unique historical documents. A selection of Beckmann's writings was issued in the United States by University of Chicago Press in 1996.
In 2003, Stephan Reimertz, Parisian novelist and art historian, published a biography of Max Beckmann. It presents many photos and sources for the first time. The biography reveals Beckmann's contemplations of writers and philosophers such as Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Richard Wagner. The book has not yet been translated into English.
In 2015, the Saint Louis Art Museum published Max Beckmann at the Saint Louis Art Museum: The Paintings, by Lynette Roth. It is a comprehensive look at the Beckmann paintings at SLAM, the largest collection of them in the world, and places both artist and works in a broader context.
Although Beckmann is considered one of the towering figures of 20th-century art, he has never been a household name, and his works have mostly appealed to a niche market of German and Austrian collectors. In 1921 Beckmann signed an exclusive contract with the print-dealer J. B. Neumann in Berlin. In 1938 he had the first of numerous exhibitions at Curt Valentin’s Buchholz Gallery, New York. Today, his large paintings routinely sell for more than $1 million, and his self-portraits generally command the highest prices. In 2001, Ronald Lauder paid $22.5 million, a record for the artist, at Sotheby's New York for Beckmann’s Self-Portrait with Horn (1938), and displayed it at the Neue Galerie in New York.
Several important works by Beckmann were discovered in the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt (art collector) in 2012, and are the subject of intense scrutiny by the German police and art historians for their provenance and sale during the Nazi period.
- ^Max BeckmannArchived January 10, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
- ^Schulz-Hoffmann and Weiss 1984, p. 69.
- ^Rainbird 2003, p. 272.
- ^ abcdefMax BeckmannMuseum of Modern Art, New York.
- ^"Beckmann". Spaightwood galleries. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
- ^Rainbird 2003, p. 274.
- ^ abMichael Kimmelman (June 27, 2003), "Chuckling Darkly at Disaster", New York Times.
- ^Stephen Kinzer (August 12, 2003), "As Max Beckmann Gets a New York Spotlight, St. Louis Shares in the Glow", New York Times.
- ^ abMax Beckmann Guggenheim Collection.
- ^Robert McDonald (February 7, 1987), Art Review: "German Masterpieces Dazzle At San Diego Museum Of Art", Los Angeles Times.
- ^"Max Beckman, 66, Noted Artist, Dies". December 28, 1950. New York Times. "Max Beckmann ... died yesterday of a heart attack near his home, 38 West Sixty-ninth Street."
- ^Rainbird 2003, p. 283.
- ^Schulz-Hoffmann and Weiss 1984, pp. 270–272.
- ^Schulz-Hoffmann and Weiss 1984, pp. 161–162.
- ^"Centre Pompidou - Art culture musée expositions cinémas conférences débats spectacles concerts". Centrepompidou.fr. 2000-09-14. Retrieved 2012-06-22.
- ^Archived August 29, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
- ^Catherine Hickley (December 9, 2011), Review: "Vampires, Ghosts Haunted Max Beckmann During U.S. Exile", Bloomberg.
- ^Archived February 11, 2005, at the Wayback Machine.
- von Erffa, Hans Martin (ed.): Göpel, Barbara und Erhard (1976). Max Beckmann : Katalog der Gemälde. (2 vls) Bern.
- Hofmaier, James (1990). Max Beckmann: Catalogue raisonné of his Prints. (2 vls) Bern.
- von Wiese, Stephan (1978). Max Beckmann : Das zeichnerische Werk 1903–1925. Düsseldorf.
- Reimertz, Stephan (2003). Max Beckmann: Biography. Munich.
- Belting, Hans (1989). Max Beckmann: Tradition as a Problem of Modern Art. Preface by Peter Selz. New York.
- Lackner, Stephan (1969). Max Beckmann : Memoirs of a Friendship. Coral Gables.
- Lackner, Stephan (1977). Max Beckmann. New York.
- Michalski, Sergiusz (1994). New Objectivity. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen. ISBN 3-8228-9650-0
- Rainbird, Sean, ed. (2003). Max Beckmann. New York: Museum of Modern Art. ISBN 0-87070-241-6
- Schulz-Hoffmann, Carla; Weiss, Judith C. (1984). Max Beckmann: Retrospective. Munich: Prestel. ISBN 0-393-01937-3
- Selz, Peter (1964). Max Beckmann. New York.
- Anabelle Kienle: Max Beckmann in Amerika (Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag 2008), ISBN 978-3-86568-243-7.
- Françoise Forster-Hahn: Max Beckmann in Kalifornien. Exil, Erinnerung und Erneuerung (München / Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag 2007),ISBN 978-3-422-06733-2.
Spotlight Essay: Max Beckmann, Day and Dream, 1946
Museum Educator and Coordinator of Public Programs, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
Day and Dream is an enigmatic series of fifteen lithographs that Max Beckmann made in 1946, at the close of his nearly decade-long period of self-imposed exile from Nazi Germany in Amsterdam. He completed the portfolio on June 24, shortly before embarking on his long-awaited journey to the United States, where he would live and work until his death in 1950. The series deals specifically with themes that preoccupied the artist during his final years in Amsterdam. Revealing little of the scathing social commentary that characterized many of his prints from the 1920s,1 the subject matter of the Amsterdam lithographs is more private in nature, evoking, for example, feelings of entrapment and disorientation and allusions to life in Holland; his recurring concerns about war; and references to the artist’s hope and optimism about career prospects in the United States.2 While many of these lithographs are specific in terms of subject matter and place, others are more uncertain, reflecting on questions of morality and religion, which many scholars relate to his ambivalent relationship to Third Reich politics.3 The works are multilayered and speak on both literal and metaphorical levels, offering viewers striking yet ambiguous visual clues about the cultural disorientation, ethical dilemmas, and social influences that informed Beckmann’s life and self-perceptions during his time in Amsterdam after World War II.
The artist made Day and Dream upon request of Curt Valentin, the influential New York art dealer who emigrated from Berlin to New York in 1937. As an exile with connections to powerful art dealers in Nazi Germany, Valentin enjoyed the uncommon privilege of being allowed to purchase confiscated modern art from Nazi authorities for the New York gallery that he managed.4 Largely responsible for introducing Beckmann's paintings and other European modernist works by such artists as Fernand Léger, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Max Ernst to the American public, Valentin believed that producing multiples of a recent portfolio would further enhance the artist’s reputation with American collectors.5 He expressed his interest in commissioning a new portfolio in a letter to the artist dated March 8, 1946, and Beckmann accepted the offer enthusiastically: “I’m teeming with countless ideas,” he responded. “I could make a portfolio with biblical or mythological themes, a circus-theater-café series, or all of them mixed up into one.”6
Beckmann decided upon the latter eclectic approach, and as if to underscore the portfolio’s diverse facets and impressions, he varied his drawing technique from plate to plate. In some cases he used a fine litho pen, as in Sleeping Athlete, creating clean and smoothly defined images. In others, such as Weather-vane and Circus, he worked exclusively with crayon, producing coarser drawings that on first glance appear simple and childlike, but that upon closer examination prove rich in metaphorical content. In several cases, such as in Self Portrait, Morning, and The Fall of Man, Beckmann applied large sections of ink on the stone, a practice that resulted in intense and aggressive blackened areas on the paper that dominate the composition.7
The varying techniques and themes that comprise the Amsterdam portfolio exhibit a lack of cohesion that renders an examination of the portfolio in a given sequence inconsequential. Resembling a collection of free-floating ruminations on diverse facets of the artist’s post-war circumstances, the prints can be viewed repeatedly and in a variety of combinations. Day and Dream, the portfolio’s title, underscores this apparent absence of a graspable linear development. The words evoke the daydream, a state of mind in which day (reality) and dream (imagination) are tied to one another, yet are removed from the logic of conscious thought and structured time. Beckmann’s original title choice, Time-Motion, a phrase still decipherable on a paper fragment in King and Demagogue, further suggests temporal and spatial ambiguity. Initially articulated in correspondence between the artist and Valentin, and again in Beckmann’s diary entry of June 24, 1946,8Time-Motion conveys both a sense of passing time and transience, two phenomena that can be attributed to Beckmann’s experiences as an exile, for whom a feeling of perpetual waiting or arrested time becomes the norm.9 Both titles—Day and Dream and Time-Motion—serve as a foil to the viewer’s temporal and spatial expectations—one that is reinforced graphically through the artist’s frequent rejection of linear perspective, as in Sleeping Athlete and Circus; and alienated spatial and social configurations, as in Crawling Woman and The Fall of Man.
Further complicating matters, there are aspects of this portfolio that both Beckmann and Valentin developed for purely pragmatic reasons. Aware that ninety of the hundred portfolios printed would be shipped to the United States, both artist and dealer made choices for the suite that would appeal specifically to American collectors.10 The title appears in English, for example, and the cover image, published on linen, is a reproduction of Beckmann’s Globe and Shell, a 1927 drypoint etching that features a globe with North America as its focal point. Valentin selected this print, printed by Beckmann in Frankfurt twenty years before, as a means of visually referencing the artist’s future home and art market, a strategy that would help publicize to American patrons the artist’s intention of relocating to the United States.11
As is often the case in Beckmann’s print suites, the portfolio begins and ends with a self-portrait, a structuring device that provides nominal directive for the narrative dislocation that follows. These portraits contrast notably from one another, and offer substantial clues about the way the artist chose to project his public persona at a given time. In a sense, the opening figure serves as a charismatic master of ceremonies who invites the viewer to engage viscerally both with the projected image of the portfolio’s creator and with the dreamlike images that follow. Here, ubiquitous scribbles and crosshatching give form to an older man’s weathered, yet distinguished face. The artist’s rigid jaw-line accentuates an unsmiling demeanor that contributes to an overall countenance of serious resolve. His clothes—the beret-like cap, a jacket and shirt open at the collar—point toward a slightly bohemian figure, who is simultaneously grounded in the comforts of the bourgeoisie. Holding a lit cigarette confidently in his left hand, the artist radiates self-assurance and sovereignty. With his gaze fixed on a point beyond the viewer, he confronts the world head-on. Other self-portraits in the series are, in stark contrast, allegorical in nature. The final plate shows, for example, a profile of Pontius Pilate clad in ancient Roman attire, but whose facial features strongly resemble those of Beckmann. As a modern stand-in for Pilate, the artist has placed himself in visual confrontation with Christ, a dynamic that may allude to Beckmann’s and other Germans’ compromised ethical position in relation to Third Reich politics.
Some of the figures that comprise Day and Dream appear, at first glance, simple and larger than life, and for this reason, encourage precise iconographical readings. Yet these figures fluctuate, just as the title suggests, between the mundane and fantastical. The artist’s propensity to fuse the topical with the strange, combined with his tendency to disrupt the viewer’s narrative expectations through distorted perspective, make it difficult to arrive at definitive interpretations. Weather-vane of Day and Dream exemplifies this ambiguity. The lithograph features a rooftop weathervane shaped in the form of a mermaid holding an arrow that points toward the ocean. Tiny sailboats are visible in the distance. Two large black ravens are perched on a horizontal bar attached to the weathervane. Photographs taken from Beckmann’s window reveal that the artist saw a similar rooftop weathervane from his Amsterdam studio.12 This picturesque view likely served as a locus for the artist’s daily reflections and visualizations, while the composition, with its distant horizon line and harbor scene, more generally recalls the vast art historical tradition of Dutch seascape paintings.
The artist may have fused elements from two drawings in this print. In a diary entry dated March 28, 1946, Beckmann recorded the titles of two drawings he had just completed: “Frau mit Fischschwanz” (Woman with Fishtail) and “Pfeil und Raben” (Arrow and Raven), and it seems likely that these figures—the mermaid and the ravens perched on the weathervane—appear as one element here.13 This hybrid image placed within the greater context of a harbor invites rich and multifaceted readings. The fact that the wind directs the mermaid’s arrow seaward might reference Beckmann’s own much awaited journey, while the ravens, a foreboding omen in English and Central European folklore, possibly embody the artist’s fears about the future. A third bird resembling a seagull appears suspended in flight in almost direct opposition to the weathervane’s arrow. This lightly sketched avian form— visually at odds with rest of the composition—suggests a state of conflicted or arrested motion.14
Within the context of Beckmann’s experiences as an exile in Amsterdam, several lithographs from Day and Dream reflect upon the connection between sexuality and human alienation. Morning, for example, is set in a sparse, cramped bedroom dominated by a large bed, head board, and heating pipe. At the center of the print is an image of a large, highly sexualized young woman. Seated on the bed with her legs parted in the direction of the viewer, she wears a negligee, which, due to its substantial size and massive concentration of black ink, is the focal point of the picture. The woman, possibly a prostitute, wears a Dutch cap and clogs, a clear reference to Beckmann’s host country. Leaning casually against a pile of pillows she strokes a black cat, a recurring motif in Beckmann’s oeuvre that is frequently associated with female sexuality.15 She has placed her right hand over her crotch in a modest gesture that seems to contradict her otherwise exhibitionist posture.
A puzzling figure kneeling in the background introduces a further element of uncertainty into the composition. Possessing both masculine and feminine characteristics— the hands are bulky and shoulders broad, yet the hair is pulled back into a bun—this person is advanced in years. Clad in a formless, long-sleeved robe or dress, the figure is poised to offer the young woman a glass of water or wine. The left hand clutches a bottle, the slender form of which runs parallel to the lines of the young woman’s torso, taking on a phallic connotation. Is it the woman’s partner who is marginalized in the composition’s background? Or does this figure’s neutralizing presence and scrutinizing gaze convey a moral judgment about the woman’s openly sexual behavior?
Other plates from Day and Dream reveal the artist’s recollections of everyday encounters with Amsterdam friends and acquaintances, as well as recapitulations of memorable shows by local circus and Varieté performers, spectacles that fascinated the artist throughout his life.16Circus revisits subject matter from print portfolios and paintings made by Beckmann in Germany during the 1920s.17 In 1921, for example, the artist published Jahrmarkt (Annual Fair), a portfolio of ten drypoint etchings, focusing on circus performers— clowns, tall and strong men, acrobats, and tightrope walkers—both on stage and behind the scenes. In similar thematic vein, a clown and cyclist inhabit the space of the 1946 lithograph Circus, yet they are portrayed within the context of Beckmann’s Amsterdam experiences, and an air of violence permeates the scene.
In the right section of the print, the facial features of a tall, skinny jester wearing a clown’s hat recall those of the artist (as in the depiction of Pilate in the final plate). Crossing his arms over his chest, the man is seated with splayed legs on a drum or stool. Before him on the ground lies a nude woman with her arms tied behind her back and a cloth fastened around her mouth, a recurring image denoting captivity in Beckmann’s oeuvre.18 The muscular man crouching behind her, possibly her partner, wears only shorts and is also bound in handcuffs. On the ground beneath them is a variety show program, the existence of which presents captivity and physical torment—two commonplace forms of wartime subjugation—as a kind of a grotesque circus or variety show.
In a diary entry dated May 11, 1946, Beckmann referred to this lithograph as “Der Sieger,” or “The Victor,” and scribbled Zirkusszene (Circus Scene) in parentheses.19 Although “Der Sieger” is not listed as the title in the portfolio’s table of contents, the artist’s mention of the word in his diary helps shed light on this puzzling work. The victor quite possibly refers to the clown or Beckmann himself, who appears to survey the subjugation of his fellow humans in the foreground with a curious mixture of concern and critical detachment. Featured in the upper left section is a second figure, a bespectacled gentleman bicycle rider who hauls an oversized bottle of milk on his handlebars. Sources close to the artist have identified the bicyclist as the Beckmann’s milkman, who was imprisoned during the war for engaging in underground activities against the Nazis. Through Beckmann’s direct appeal to the Gestapo, the man was released unharmed.20 This momentous event appears to have served as a catalyst for the artist’s reflections on his personal role as a dubious victor or liberator in wartime Europe. While a definitive meaning of Circus remains elusive, Beckmann’s compelling juxtaposition of real and fictional characters takes us back to the portfolio’s overarching theme: the interchangeability between day (reality) and dream (illusion).
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Max Beckmann, Weather-vane, from the portfolio Day and Dream, 1946. Lithograph, 15 ¾ x 11 ¾ ”. Transfer from the Art and Architecture Library, Washington University, 1970. WU 4440.II.