Max Beckmann (1884 – 1950)

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Max Beckmann was a German painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer. Although he is usually 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.

He 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 served as a medic, 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 exceptional for the self-portraits he painted throughout his life, their number and intensity rivaled only by Rembrandt and Picasso. Well-read in philosophy and literature, he 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.)

In the Weimar Republic of the Twenties, Beckmann enjoyed great success and official honors. 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. In 1925 he was selected to teach a master class at the Städel school of art in Frankfurt. Some of his most famous students included Theo Garve, Leo Maillet and Marie-Louise Von Motesiczky.

His fortunes changed with the rise to power of Hitler, whose dislike of Modern Art quickly led to its suppression by the state. In 1933, the Nazi government bizarrely called Beckmann a “cultural Bolshevik” and dismissed him from his teaching position at the Art School in Frankfurt. In 1937 more than 500 of his works were confiscated from German museums, and several of these works were put on display in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition. For ten years, Beckmann lived in poverty in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, failing in his desperate attempts to obtain a visa for the US. In 1944 the Germans attempted to draft him into the army, despite the fact that 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, and included several large triptychs, which stand as a summation of Beckmann’s art.

After the war, Beckmann moved to America, and 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 suffered from angina pectoris and died after Christmas 1950, struck down by a heart attack on 61st Street/Central Park West in Manhattan.

His late works mirror the landscapes, skyscrapers and the populace of mid-century America. Many of the paintings are now displayed in American museums. Max Beckmann, a native of the very heart of Germany, exerted a profound influence on such American painters as Philip Guston and Nathan Oliveira.

From its beginnings in the fin de siècle up to its completion after World War II, Beckmann’s work reflects an era of radical changes in both art and history. Many of Max Beckmann’s paintings express the agonies of Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Some of his imagery refers to the decadent glamour of the Weimar Republic’s cabaret culture, but from the Thirties 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.

Unlike several of his avant-garde contemporaries, Beckmann rejected non-representational painting. He took up and advanced the tradition of figurative painting, following its technical and spiritual masters, above all Cezanne, but also Van Gogh, Blake, Rembrandt, Rubens and the Magic Realists of the late Middle Ages, such as Bosch, Brueghel and Matthias Grünewald. Encompassing portraiture, landscape, still life, mythology and the fantastic, his work created a very personal but authentic version of modernism, combining this with traditional plasticity. Beckmann reinvented the triptych and expanded this archetype of medieval painting into a looking glass of contemporary humanity. New York art dealer Richard L Feigen described him as “the greatest artist of the 20th Century in Germany — if not in the world.”

Beckmann’s 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 America for decades. His 1984 centenary was marked in the New York area only by a modest exhibit at Nassau County’s suburban art museum. But in recent years, Max 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), St Louis (1998/1999), Munich (2000) and Frankfurt (2006). In Spain and Italy, Beckmann’s work has been accessible to a wider public for the first time. In 2001, a large-scale Beckmann retrospective took place at Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Tate Modern in London.

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