The human condition is the central subject of Beckmann’s works, always approached with an intensity which gives them an emotional universality. He had a profound understanding of art history, greatly admiring and studying old master paintings. Beckmann is best known for his large allegorical works but also produced an exceptional body of portraits, still-lifes and landscapes.
Shortly after his formal training at the Kunstschule in Leipzig (1900–3), Beckmann embarked on a short educational sojourn in Paris sponsored by the eminent art historian Julius Meier-Graefe (1867–1935). His encounters with great Parisian collections had a lasting influence, visible in works such as Young Men by the Sea (1905) which was influenced by the unlikely combination of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Luca Signorelli (1450–1523) and Hans von Marées (1837–87). Beckmann’s time as a combat medic in the First World War led to a radical shift in style. The need to express the horrors of his experiences led to greater introspection and an experimentation with Expressionism. He looked to German and Flemish medieval religious imagery to translate his suffering into a modern painterly idiom, which led to works such as Descent from the Cross (1917). After the war Beckmann became a key figure in the avant-garde’s shift towards a classicising realism. He was included in the very first exhibition devoted to ‘New Objectivity’ at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1925 together with George Grosz (1893–1959) and Otto Dix (1891–1969). The movement advocated realism and social critique as an antidote to the corruption of the Weimar Republic.
Unlike Dix and Grosz however, Beckmann’s social commentary was often implicit, using complex biblical or mythological allegories to express social ills. And not all his paintings had the biting satire associated with his German contemporaries. The Barque Play of Waves (1926), for example, depicts the artist and his new wife Quappi, sailing off the coast of Italy. Even though it references satirical precedents such as the Boschian Ship of Fools motif, it is a fundamentally light-hearted work which just hints at human frailty and the distant storm clouds gathering in Europe. Beckmann reinforced the universality of his themes through his revival of the monumental medieval triptych format. He painted in areas of bright color, outlined in broad black brushstrokes such as one finds in gothic frescoes and stained-glass windows. He produced nine such works which depict his most intense exploration of contemporary humanity. Beckmann’s first triptychs, Departure (1932–33) and the Temptation of St Anthony are powerful representations of Man’s inherent duality, split between good and evil. Both have been interpreted as vehement critiques of the violence of the Nazi party. Beckmann’s successful career in Germany ended abruptly in 1933 with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Beckmann went into exile after being included in the infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in Munich in 1937.
During his exile Beckmann produced some of his most exceptional works such as Bird’s Hell (1937–8), painted in Amsterdam and Max Beckmann’s heart-rending answer to Picasso’s (1881–1973) Guernica. The powerful vanitas Still-Life with Skulls (1945) continued in the depressed vein dominant during the Nazi and Second World War period. He created five more triptychs, including Perseus (1941), an allegory of human suffering in the face of the looming German invasion of Russia. In 1947 he emigrated to the United States where he taught in St Louis and New York. A life of introspection inspired his many, brooding self-portraits such as his early Portrait in Tuxedo (1927) and the later Double Portrait, Max and Quappi (1941).
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Books on Max Beckmann
Tobias G. Natter, ed., The Self-Portrait: From Schiele to Beckmann, exh. cat. New York, 2019.
Tomás Llorens Serra, Beckmann: Figures in Exhile, exh cat. Madrid, 2018.
Sabine Rewald, Max Beckmann in New York, exh. cat. New York, 2016.
Lynette Roth, Max Beckmann at the St Louis Art Museum: The Paintings, New York, 2015.
Bernhard M. Bürgi and Nina Peter (ed.), Max Beckmann: The Landscapes, exh. cat. Berlin, 2011.
Jutta Schütt, ed., Beckmann & America, exh. cat. Frankfurt, 2011.
Mayer Beckmann et al., Max Beckmann: The Watercolors and Pastels, Catalogue Raisonné of the works in color on paper, Cologne, 2006.
Sean Rainbird, Max Beckmann, exh. cat. London, 2003.
Tobia Bezzola, Cornelia Homburg, Max Beckmann and Paris: Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Rouault, exh. cat. St Louis, 1998.
Carla Schulz-Hoffmann, Judith C. Weiss eds., Max Beckmann: Retrospective, exh. cat. Munich, 1984.