Beckmann, Max (1884–1950)

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BECKMANN, MAX (1884–1950)


German painter and graphic artist.

Max Beckmann's paintings and prints are representative of modernist trends in the visual arts in Germany during the Wilhelmine and Weimar periods, yet they transcend national boundaries. Neither aggressively abstract nor classically representational, Beckmann was able during his lifetime to synthesize and distill powerful elements from experimental developments in his native country as well as from France and Italy. His works became a favorite of American collectors after World War II and helped to precipitate a revival of interest in German expressionism.

Beckmann became associated with expressionism after World War I. His oils and his prints, especially his lithographic portfolio Hell (1919), were singled out for their power in expressing the terrible turmoil and despair evident in Germany at the beginning of the Weimar Republic. But before 1914 Beckmann had kept his distance from the experimental stylizations and abstractions of the Brücke (Bridge) and the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), the groups most connected with prewar expressionism. As a young art student, he attended the Grand Ducal Academy in Weimar and traveled to France, where he became acquainted with the works of Paul Cézanne. He moved to Berlin in 1905 and the following year married Minna Tube; his only son, Peter, was born in 1908. Preferring a painterly naturalistic interpretation of the physical world, he became a member of the Berlin Secession, exhibiting with them during the remainder of the Wilhelmine years. When expressionism became publicly recognized in 1911, Beckmann criticized artists connected with the new trend as too decorative in their depiction of space and form. His experiences in the war as a medical orderly on the front and his involvement with a radical political and artistic group at the birth of the republic contributed to his turning away from naturalism. Critics and art historians began to praise his oils and the numerous print portfolios produced during the early 1920s for their expressive form and for their "violent" and dislocated space as effective commentaries on humanity and the chaotic situation of the new republic. Beckmann also revealed his critical view of human nature and of economic inequality in several plays written at that time.

During the mid-1920s, as the republic began to stabilize after numerous rounds of inflation, strikes, and civil conflicts, the critic and museum director Gustav Hartlaub included Beckmann in a major German exhibition that he called Neue Sachlichkeit (New concreteness). Believing a new direction was emerging from figurative rather than abstract expressionism, Hartlaub celebrated a return to concrete imagery that reflected everyday events in a timeless manner. In the 1925 exhibition, he displayed Beckmann, along with other German artists—George Grosz, Otto Dix, Georg Scholz—whose clarity of forms overshadowed their use of ambiguous and sometimes caricatured features and disquieting spatial effects. The exhibition reinforced interest in Beckmann's work among a broader group of patrons. In 1925 he was appointed to teach in the Städel Art School in Frankfurt, and he remarried, this time to Mathilde von Kaulbach, the daughter of a well-known artist, who frequented upper-class circles. He began traveling frequently during the winter months to France and Italy, absorbing new developments in both countries. On occasion, his dealer Alfred Flechtheim promoted him as the German Picasso. Despite these achievements, Beckmann grew increasingly acrid about the need to promote himself and his creative efforts. In an essay of 1927, "The Social Stance of the Artist by the Black Tightrope Walker," Beckmann wrote about patrons, who were unlike his earlier, more liberal ones such as the gallery dealer I. B. Neumann and the publisher Reinhard Piper, and described his new supporters as only concerned with a gauzy, colorful view of the world. He increasingly felt like an outsider in Germany and immersed himself in metaphysical and religious texts.

By 1937, after the opening of the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich, where his works—along with other well-known modern artists associated with expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit—were condemned as depraved by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists (Nazis), Beckmann left Germany. In exile, first in the Netherlands and, after 1947, in the United States, he continued to paint, producing most of his triptych series. In 1942, while waiting to emigrate to the United States, the Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased the first of his triptychs, Departure, begun in 1932 and finished in 1935, three panels that prophetically expressed his fate as an exile. He died in New York at the end of 1950.

See alsoDegenerate Art Exhibit; Dix, Otto; Expressionism; Grosz, George.


Primary Sources

Beckmann, Max. Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait in Words: Collected Writings and Statements, 1903–50. Edited and translated by Barbara Copeland Buenger. Chicago and London, 1997. See especially "Thoughts on Timely and Untimely Art" (1912), text for Hell portfolio (1919), and "The Social Stance of the Artist by the Black Tightrope Walker" (1927).

Hartlaub, G. F. Preface to the Catalogue of Neue Sachlichkeit Exhibition (1925). In German Expressionism: Documents from the End of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism, edited by Rose-Carol Washton Long, 151–153. New York, 1991.

Schmidt, Paul F. "Max Beckmann's Hell" (1920). In German Expressionism: Documents from the End of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism, edited by Rose-Carol Washton Long, 290–292 . New York, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Göpel, Erhard, and Barbara Göpel. Max Beckmann: Katalog der Gemälde. Bern, 1976.

Hofmaier, James. Max Beckmann: Catalogue Raisonnéof His Prints. Bern, 1990.

Wiese, Stephan von. Max Beckmann zeichnerisches Werk 1903–1925. Dusseldorf, 1978.

Rose-Carol Washton Long