Max Beckmann, 1884-1950, German
from an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016 and from collections in New York, Washington, DC, Chicago and St. Louis
Max Beckmann, become gaunt, suffered a fatal heart attack crossing Central Park in December 1950. He was going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see hung this, his latest self-portrait.
Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, and detail, 1950, oil on canvas. St. Louis Art Museum on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016.
In memory, in 2016 this museum organized an exhibition of some of the artist’s portraits and paintings.
The artist’s work had, prior to a 2003 retrospective in London, Paris and New York, been received with ambivalence in New York.
The artist lived on the American continent first in St. Louis, Missouri. That the art museum in that city contains the largest collection of the artist’s art anywhere indicates that this ambivalence did not extend to Missouri
The degree of the New York ambivalence is pointed up by a decision by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first curator of contemporary art, Henry Geldzahler, an Austrian born on the brink of WW2 in Antwerp, Belgium, to deaccession and sell three of this artist’s works in 1971 in order to buy a sculpture by David Smith.
Descent from the Cross, 1917, (with light interference), oil on canvas. MOMA, NY
The interesting question is what was the ambivalence in the context of the work of a painter recognized for his talent, accomplishment and maturity years before ever he reached the United States?
Long story short, Max Beckmann ran up against the spirit and practice of the times. With open eyes and with determination.
Between 1905 and 1950, the artist produced more than 800 paintings and many more prints and drawings.
Beckmann served on the Belgian front as an orderly during the Great War.
A quote from a letter the artist wrote in 1915 when he was serving as a medical orderly on the Belgian Front:
Yesterday I was off duty. Instead of going on some short trip or other, I plunged like a wild man into drawing and made self-portrait (sic) for seven hours. I hope ultimately to become ever more simplified, ever more concentrated in expression, but I will never – this much I know – give up fullness, roundness, the vitally pulsating. Quite the contrary, I want to intensify it more all the time – you know what I mean by intensified roundness; no arabesques, no calligraphy, but rather fullness and plasticity.
Fullness, roundness and plasticity, simplification and concentrated expression it was throughout the evolution of his style over three decades.
The experience of war broke the artist and he realized that he could not use the experience of war in the same way as he used his visits to the bars, masquerades, circuses, restaurants: accumulating images and telling relationships between people.
He had a nervous breakdown in 1915 and was discharged.
Self-portrait in pen and black ink on paper, 1917. Art Institute of Chicago
Over the next 45 years, bypassing the artistic experimentation of the times (he was never a member of any group and he derided the work of both Matisse and Picasso), the artist worked out his own pictorial language.
It goes almost without saying that he was very respectful of Cezanne. Cezanne who succeeded in the astonishing feat of overvaulting the old boundaries of Western art without entering into abstraction.
Max Beckmann called his own style ‘transcendental objectivity’.
He rejected abstraction and said that abstraction underlies everything and does not need to be outed.
He returned to an earlier time in the Western tradition: to stained glass; to religious motifs; the Arthurian romances which are at the heart of the Western civilization; to motifs which come out of the Wests’s legacy in classical Greece.
And from this earlier position on the Western artistic trajectory, he struck out again into the murderous chaos of the twentieth century which he depicted ferociously but always with an eye to clarifying how we can manage our relationships one with another.
Falling Man, 1950, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Adam and Eve. TBD
Max Beckmann, who made himself knowledgeable in the art of Africa and Oceania, was a thorough-going Westerner.
This comes from the story of Parsifal, a knight of King Arthur’s Roundtable who became, at length, Grail King. This was told by the German Wolfraum von Eschenbach (died c. 1220):
in the pursuit of the Holy Grail, the Knights of the Round Table were to quest alone. Further they were to rely on their own intuition because tradition and convention would trip them up.
The King, 1933, 1937, oil on canvas. Saint Louis Art Museum
The artist followed his own trajectory.
It cost him in Nazi persecution which followed him to the Netherlands; in his early death; and in a judgment of American art litterati concentrated in our New York powerhouse who for decades decided that Max Beckmann was passé.
He never gave up representation or figuration.
He never gave up on the moral authority of the two sources of our civilization: classical Greece and Christianity (even if the Great War made him very angry with God and he decided on a position of arrogance towards the deity).
He completed nine triptychs – an old Christian format -where he told stories, using myths and symbols, about human issues.
He expected viewers to understand the metaphysics of the symbols he used. Until he realized that it was only a minority of people who could.
To this day, a wall note at the Baltimore Art Museum describes the artist’s mythological references as ‘obscure’. They are not obscure but they are more and more unfamiliar because their related stories are not formally taught any more.
Max Beckmann was not a modern in the way of the German Expressionists, of the Symbolists, the Surrealists, of Matisse or Picasso or of the New York School, of the conceptualists and on and on.
He did not reject his civilization. On the contrary, he drew from it in every sense.
He was and is sui generis. So is his near contemporary, the British artist, Stanley Spencer and for the same reasons.
The difference between the two being that Max Beckmann’s work spans Western culture; Stanley Spencer’s is grounded in his native and eccentric soil and has not passed British cultural frontiers.
Sir Stanley Spencer, 1891-1959, British
Self-portrait, Adelaide Road, 1939, oil on canvas. Private collection. Stanley Spencer, 1891-1959, British. Image from the web.
Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies of the Field, 1939, oil on canvas. Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. Sir Stanley Spencer, 1891-1959. Image from the web.
The Resurrection of the Soldiers. The last of the paintings for a commemoration of the death of Henry Sandham in Great War at Sandham Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire, UK.
Oil on canvas, 1924-30, Sir Stanley Spencer, 1891-1959. Image from the web.
Spencer, like Beckmann, served in this war and was deeply affected by it. He on the Salonika Front and as an orderly in Bristol, UK.
And there is the source of the ambivalence in the reception of Max Beckmann’s work. He was not with the times. Respectful as he was to the West’s artistic tradition, he went his own way: backwards to move forwards.
In 1937, 28 of the artist’s paintings and more than 500 of his works on paper had been confiscated by the Nazis in their drive against ‘degenerate’ art.
He and his wife left for the Netherlands that year.
There they stayed for 10 years, unable to get a visa for the United States. Given the numbers of European artists and intellectuals given safe harbour in the United States at this time, this delay is strange in itself.
Max Beckmann in exile in Amsterdam in 1937
Birds’ Hell, 1938, oil oil canvas. On loan from a private collection to the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 2016
The artist was in Paris when he painted this. It is believed to be an attack on the violence of National Socialism
In 1947, the artist left for St. Louis, Missouri, where he taught.
In 1949, he obtained a teaching post at the art school of Brooklyn Museum, New York.
It was just after Christmas, 1950 that the artist died.
The New York in which the artist landed was in the hands of the Abstract Expressionists who had a lock hold on the artistic imagination in the United States for thirty years.
When Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol broke their hold and seduced us into brave new worlds, Max Beckmann had been dead already 20 years.
My favourite French ‘philosophe’, Michel Onfray, says that our Western civilization is done because we are not willing to die for its values. Only for its I-phones, if that.
Onfray says that we may as well top up our flutes of champagne and go down, as on the Titanic, singing.
The Sinking of the Titanic, 1912, oil on canvas. The Saint Louis Art Museum. Photo from the net
Everything we have fought for and every wonderful thing we have achieved in the West – prominently no more war in Europe – we have achieved because we belong to classical Greece and to the Christian tradition.
Which have provided both the rationale of our progress and the biases, chokeholds, against which we have fought to accomplish that progress.
Nor until we have institutionalized the learning that we do not have dominion over the earth, and until the right to die has passed into all our laws, our civilization and its fights are not done. Nor is it done until women have to stop begging for the integrity of their sexuality.
Nothing is over in our culture until the fat lady sings.
The Town (City Night), 1950, oil on canvas. Saint Louis Art Museum on loan to the Metropolitan Musuem of Art, NY in 2016
The artist’s wife said that this scene is a cavernous bar. The nude woman is a symbol of innocence and beauty and naivety. Around her are creatures representing prostitution, blindness, vulgarity, poverty and greed. The big city.
I don’t know when she will be singing because coming next are very large questions of what kind of life we will have created with artificial intelligence. In this as in all else, our dual heritage will be guiding us.
Until our civilization has passed, Beckmann’s work is of the essence because the ancient Greeks and Christianity remain with us.
And because Beckmann’s stated purpose was to shed light on human relationships in order to offer help in their management.
In our codes of conduct, our habits of mind, our laws, our deep ground even if the actual stories have disappeared from our mouths and we say that we no longer are Christian, we are of classical Greece and of Christianity.
One last thing: I don’t know why so many of the artist’s hands are so big. Huge. Wonderful Sapiens hands.
Self-Portrait in Tails, 1937, oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago
Self-Portrait on Yellow Ground with a Cigarette, 1923, oil on canvas. MOMA, NY
Self-Portrait in front of a Red Curtain, and detail, 1923, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2017.
The artist has posed himself as though he were a manger of a nightclub in the Berlin of the 1920s.
Self Portrait with White Hat, and detail, 1926, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2017
Self-Portrait, 1927, and detail, oil on canvas. Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Self-portrait, and detail, 1938, gouache. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY.
The artist is wearing the kind of cap with a visor which used to be worn by professions which spent their time poring over small print.
Self-portrait with Horn, and detail, 1938, oil on canvas. Loaned by the Neue Gallerie, New York and a private collection to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2017
The Artists with Vegetables, 1943. Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis University. Photo from a 1903 catalogue of the artist’s work
Self-Portrait with Cigarette, 1947, oil on canvas. Museum von Ostwall, Dortmund on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017
Plaza (Hotel Lobby), and detail, 1950, oil on canvas. Albert-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
A favourite watering place of the artist and his wife was the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel
Portraits of Others
Quappi in grey, 1948, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016.
The artist’s last painting of his second wife, Mathilde (Quappi) von Kaulbach whom he married in 1925 and to whom he was married for 25 years. She died in New York in 1986 after dedicating her life to her husband’s legacy
Quappi in a Blue Boat, and detail, 1926 and 1950, gouache and oil on paper mounted on board. Wurth Collection, Kunzeslau loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
The Bark, 1926, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
An evocation of the artist’s honeymoon with his second wife in Italy in 1925
Alfi with a Mask, 1934, oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY
Vaudeville Act (Quappi), and detail, 1934, 1937, oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Quappi with White Fur, 1937, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016.
The artist’s depiction of glamour shortly after he and his wife fled to Amsterdam where all glamour for them ended.
The Oyster Eaters, 1943, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
The artist’s family on a visit to Italy
Parisian Society, and detail, 1925, 1931,1947, oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
The Old Actress, and detail, 1926, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
Female Head in Blue and Grey, 1948. Private collection. Photo from a 2003 catalogue of the artist’s work
Variete, 1927, oil on canvas. The artist had a great love of vaudeville, cabaret, circus performances
Still Life with Large Shell, and detail, 1939, oil on canvas. Baltimore Museum of Art
Woman with Mandolin in Yellow and Red, oil on canvas, 1950. Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich on loan in 2016 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
And x-ray showed a painting of Leda and the Swan which the artist overpainted for fear of American prudishness
Backstage, and detail, 1950, oil on canvas. Loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016 by the state museum of art in Frankfurt, Germany
Sculpture Studio, 1950, oil on canvas. Loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY by the Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich
Optician’s Window, and detail, 1950, black ink and pastel on canvas. Wurth Collection, Kunzeslau loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016
The only painting of a New York street
Mill in a Eucalyptus Forest, 1950, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
A rare landscape painting
San Francisco, and detail, 1950, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
The artist’s only painting of an American city
Carnival Mask, Green, Violet and Pink (Columbine), oil on canvas, 1950. Saint Louis Art Museum loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
The explicit sexual pose of this woman has been interpreted both as that of a goddess of sex and death; and as that of a manipulated puppet
Dancer with Tambourine, 1946, oil on canvas. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 2016
Bathing Scene, and detail, 1934, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Family Portrait, 1920, oil on canvas. MOMA, NY
Plaza (Hotel Lobby), and detail, 1950, oil on canvas. Albert-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2016
A favourite watering place of the artist and his wife was the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court in NY
Galleria Umberto, and detail, 1925, oil on canvas. Private collection, courtesy of Neue Gallerie, New York loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016
The artist visited Naples in 1925 and made studies inside the Galleria Umberto
Beginning and Departure: two triptychs on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016
Beginning, 1946-49, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
An autobiography. Each panel revolves around the artist as a boy: an imagination mixed with a reality.
Beginning, and detail,1949, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The child on the bottom right looking around is the artist.
The Three Argonauts
The Argonauts, 1950, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
In the center panel, the old man is showing the young men the path of life. He has just finished chanting the Odyssey – heartland Western myth of a man’s life path – and has laid down his harp.
An owl sits on the wrist of one: the owl, undoubtedly, of Athena. It represents knowledge and wisdom.
In the right panel, they are being accompanied by a choir, as in Greek theater. Giving context and explaining, directing the audience’s attention.
In the left panel, the artist is continuing his work in the face of danger to himself and a complete disregard for the arts on the part of the subject of his painting.
This most poignant triptych was the last the artist completed. Touched my heart.
The Argonauts, and detail, 1949/50, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Departure, 1932-1935, oil on canvas. MOMA, NY
This was the artist’s first triptych, painted when the Nazi’s fired him from his professorship at the Frankfurt Art Academy.
He refused to assign political meaning to this triptych which has come to be seen as a commentary on Nazi atrocities.
The artist, however, compared the work to a miraculous holy picture, a teller of truths difficult to put into words. In its central panel one of the apostles distributing fish.
Departure, and detail, 1932-1935, oil on canvas. MOMA, NY