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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Max Beckmann

Self-portrait in a Tuxedo,
1927, Max Beckmann
How do you select a representative self-portrait of an artist who seems to have painted (or drawn) more images of himself than anything else? I guess there's nothing wrong with an artist being introspective, but geesh! Biographers suggest the German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann, was nothing if not introspective. I've counted at least thirty different Beckmann self-portraits, which puts him on a par with van Gogh, and second only to Rembrandt (around 90). I don't know about van Gogh or Rembrandt, but one might get the feeling in looking at Beckmann's work that introspection may have been mixed equally with an egotistical streak of considerable width. Virtually every one of his self-portraits would seem to verify this trait.
Max Beckman's pre-WW I paintings can best be represented by his Sinking of the Titanic
from 1912. As horrific as this event was, contrast this with his post-WW I efforts below.
Max Beckmann was born in 1884 into a middle-class Leipzig family. Some biographers suggest he began painting almost as soon as he was old enough to hold a brush. I guess if you're addicted to self-portraits, you don't want to miss painting the early years. Then came WW I. He was around thirty years of age and prime "cannon fodder" in the so-called "war to end all wars." Beckmann volunteered as a medical orderly, which may have saved him from death in combat, but subjected him to an inordinately up-close view of war's physical and mental horrors. Indications are he was as much a victim of mental trauma as any of the combatants he shuffled about. As wars are prone to do, the experience changed his life, his outlook on life, and as an artist, his painting style.
The Night, 1918-19, Max Beckmann. A war does strange things to people.
Before the war, Beckman had been a devotee of the old masters. After the war, his painting style grew darker, distorted, quite expressionistic, but also much more robust as seen in his The Night (above), dating from the immediate post-war years, 1918-19. Beckmann always rejected the designation of expressionist, though after the war he aligned himself with the Neue Sachlachkeit (New Objectivity) movement and gained much success during the ill-fated Weimar Republic years between the wars. His Moon Landscape (below) is representative of Beckmann's brand of restrained Expressionism from this period.

Moon Landscape, 1925, Max Beckman.
However, as Hitler came to power during the 1930s, his taste in art did not coincide with Beckmann's. Hitler not only got him fired from his position as an art instructor at a Frankfort art school, but following the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art exhibit in Munich, in which Beckmann was labeled a "cultural Bolshevik," the artist and his wife had the foresight to flee the country for Amsterdam and a life of poverty as he desperately tried to obtain a visa to immigrate to the U.S. Despite this, plus a heart attack, and the fact that he'd attained the ripe old age of sixty, in 1944, the Germans attempted to draft him.
Hell of the Birds, 1937, Max Beckmann
It was during his self-imposed exile that many of Beckmann's most powerfully intense triptychs were executed. His Hell of the Birds (above) is from 1937. Beckman, despite his tendency toward ego tripping self-portraits, was a thinking painter. Like war, poverty changes who people are and how they think. It leaves deep scars, especially upon those who have known better times. The social trauma of Nazism in Germany was never far from his mind. But Beckmann's work also reflected a deep respect for the medieval painting of Breughel, Bosch, and Grunewald, as well as the work of Blake, Rembrandt, Cezanne, van Gogh, and Rubens. Had these artists been expressionists, their work would likely have looked very much like Beckmann's.
The Beginning, 1949, Max Beckmann
After the war, in 1947, Beckmann was finally allowed to move to the United States. His works from this American period were no less expressionistic, yet reflected a new optimism as seen in his triptych, The Beginning (above) from 1949. Beckman taught at the St. Louis Art Museum as well as the Brooklyn Museum until his death in 1950. He died of a heart attack on the streets of New York as he made his way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see one of his works there on display.


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