The German painter and graphic artist Max Beckmann (1884-1950) was one of the towering personalities of figurative expressionist art. His work is characterized by a sculptural monumentality, a vibrant use of color, and a profoundly philosophical outlook.
Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig, the son of a flour merchant. By the age of 14 Max was painting seriously. He attended the Weimar Academy (1900-1903) and then went to Berlin to study. He was influenced by the German impressionism of Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth. In 1906, just before leaving for Italy on a scholarship, Beckmann married a fellow student. His Great Death Scene (1906), a painting clearly influenced by Edvard Munch, reflects the death of Beckmann's mother.
Back in Berlin, Beckmann visited the 1907 exhibition of Eugène Delacroix's paintings and produced a number of comparable large-scale works. He was also influenced by the monumental compositions of Peter Paul Rubens, as in the Sinking of the Titanic (1912). Beckmann's works of this kind were very successful, and the "German Delacroix" had exhibitions in Frankfurt and Magdeburg in 1911-1912. By 1914 Beckmann had apparently become aware of a new tension of the picture space, but his color was still quite conservative.
World War I
In 1914 Beckmann volunteered as a medical corpsman and was sent to the Russian front. In early 1915 he was transferred to a hospital in Flanders, where he daily experienced the horrors of operative procedures. By summer he was completely exhausted and was discharged from the army.
Beckmann went to Frankfurt, where his art now moved in an entirely new direction, expressing tension, loneliness, and disillusionment. His Self-Portrait with Red Scarf (1917) is a far cry from his confident early selfportraits. This is a man against the world, portrayed in a constricted space, the figure arranged with deliberate angularity within the picture frame. The landscapes of the period show a Munch-like isolationism.
Style between the Wars
Beckmann's style in the immediate postwar period appears to have been affected primarily by German Gothic art. Its compressed space was well suited to his increasingly philosophical and poetic compositions. The powerful color and roughhewn forms of the Gothic also appealed to Beckmann. Among the paintings of this period the most important is Night (1918-1919). In this work Beckmann moves toward protest, a protest against the violence, hunger, and rioting that became typical of this period just before inflation set in. As a prophecy of the violence of the Nazi period soon to follow, Night is one of the most disturbing works ever painted. It has a dreamlike reality that has been termed "magic realism." During the early 1920s Beckmann played a leading role in the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement, in which the artist depicted in the greatest detail and clarity his own emotions and the world around him without direct comment.
In 1925 Beckmann became a professor at the Städel Institute in Frankfurt. He married for the second time; his wife, Mathilde von Kaulbach, was the daughter of the famous Munich portrait painter. In 1928 there was an elaborate retrospective of Beckmann's work in Mannheim. Other exhibitions were held throughout Germany, with the National Gallery in Berlin dedicating a room to his paintings. During the late 1920s and early 1930s Beckmann's art took on a more mellow quality under the influence of contemporary French painting—Beckmann had a studio in Paris and spent the winters there. Without losing any of its symbolic and poetic quality, his work became more distinctly esthetic under the influence of painters like Henri Matisse.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they dismissed Beckmann from his position at the Städel and listed him as a "degenerate" artist. He moved to Berlin, where he lived until 1937. His greatest achievements of this period were large-scale triptychs like the Departure (1932-1935), the first in a series that he continued to execute for the rest of his life. This triptych is a poetic and allegorical comment on man's inhumanity to man, an oblique but still poignant reference to the physical and psychological tortures of the era and the ultimate liberation and triumph of the human spirit.
The Beckmanns fled to Amsterdam, where they preferred to remain unnoticed and maintained contact with very few people. Beckmann's diary for this period is filled with references to the lack of heat, proper food, and light and to endless air raids. He continued to paint, and the great Blind Man's Buff triptych (1945) is one of the most elaborate and complex works of a period in which Beckmann did five of these magnificent and powerful poetic compositions. Blind Man's Buff appears to be an allegory of the relationship between man and woman and the gods who control their lives.
With the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945, Beckmann had an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The next year he had a major exhibition at the Curt Valentin gallery in New York City. In 1947 he accepted an invitation to teach at Washington University in St. Louis. The following year the City Art Museum of St. Louis gave him a retrospective, which brought him the highest acclaim in the art world. In 1949 Beckmann received first prize at the Carnegie International and taught at the Brooklyn Art Museum. In the summer of 1950 he died in New York.
Further Reading on Max Beckmann
There are no monographs on Beckmann in English. The best material in English is in two exhibition catalogs and a general survey: City Art Museum, St. Louis, Max Beckmann, with an introduction by Perry T. Rathbone (1948); Museum of Modern Art, New York, Max Beckmann, with an introduction by Peter Selz (1964); and Bernard S. Myers, The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt (1957; concise ed. 1963). A specialized study is Charles S. Kessler, Max Beckmann's Triptychs (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Lackner, Stephan, Max Beckmann, New York: H. N. Abrams, 1977.