Max Beckmann
Biography of German Expressionist Painter.

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Max Beckmann (1884-1950)


Training and Art Studies
World War I
1920s: Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)
1930s: Triptychs and Symbolism
Degenerate Art
Emigrates to America
Reputation and Legacy

NOTE: For analysis of works by Expressionist painters like Max Beckmann,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For other works similar to those
produced by Max Beckmann, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

For the types of printmaking, used by
artists like Max Beckmann, such as
engraving, etching, and lithography
see: Printmaking: History, Types.


One of the best portrait artists and one of the most powerful modern artists, the painter, etcher and sculptor Max Beckmann was associated with German Expressionism, although he himself rejected this classification. He preferred to align himself with George Grosz (1893-1959) and others in the New Objectivity group (Die Neue Sachlichkeit), which rejected the introverted emotionalism of Expressionism in favour of realism (in Beckmann's case a realism laced with symbolism). Generally he is overlooked, even today, because he never quite became one of the Modernist 'gang' of expressionist painters, and his style was difficult to pigeonhole. Furthermore, his philosophy, as outlined in My Theory of Painting (1941), was somewhat muddled. Even so, some art critics consider him to be one of the great figures of modern art, and his work is undoubtedly a potent artistic commentary on the alienation of the 20th century. Active across most of the painting genres, as well as most types of printmaking - notably etching - he is best known for his portrait paintings, especially his self portraits, in which he pictorialized his spiritual experiences. His mastery of the colour black (one of the most difficult pigments to handle) compares to that of Edouard Manet (1832-83), and his understanding of the human condition is often compared to that of Rembrandt (1606-69).

His most famous expressionist paintings include The Dream (1921, St Louis Art Museum); Departure (1932, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Departure (1932-3, MOMA, NY); Journey on the Fish (1934, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart); Self-Portrait with Horn (1938, Neue Galerie, New York); Birds' Hell (1938, St Louis Art Museum); and Carnival (1942, University of Iowa Museum of Art).

Self-Portrait In Olive And Brown
(1945). Detroit Institute of Arts.

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for works of art by famous painters:
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For the finest works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

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Best Genre Painters.

Training and Art Studies

Beckmann was born in Leipzig, Germany to a middle class family. His drawing and oil painting skills were evident from an early stage. At the age of 16 he began studying art with the Norwegian painter Carl Frithjof Smith, at the Academy of Art (Grossherzogliche Kunstschule) in Weimar. After training at the Academy from 1899 to 1903, Beckmann went to live in Paris in 1903. His encounter with the Pieta of Avignon at the exhibition of French Primitives there the following year proved a revelation - evidence of his early fascination with International Gothic art. At the end of 1904 he moved to Berlin, where he exhibited with the Sezession in 1906, the same year that he gained a scholarship to study in Florence. Beckmann's early work was in the style of the German Impressionists such as Max Liebermann (1847-1935), Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) and Max Slevogt (1868-1932). Like them, he looked to German art of the 19th century for inspiration. His Young Men beside the Lake (1905, Weimar Museum) reveals the influence of the monumental compositions of Von Marees, while The Wreck of the Titanic (1912, Private Collection, Munich) displays a pathos that recalls Munch (1863-1944). Indeed, at the very time that Expressionism was emerging, Beckmann was moving towards an objective awareness of reality that was evident in The Street (1914, Private Collection, New York) and continued to form an important element in all his work, including, self-portraiture (Small Self-Portrait, 1912), landscape painting, drawing and engraving. His Small Self-Portrait was completed in drypoint, probably the medium in which Beckmann was most successful, although he also mastered lithography: see his 1909 series of Lithographs, The Return of Eurydice. In 1912 he had his first solo exhibition at the Kunstverein in Magdeburg, and the following year he exhibited at Paul Cassirer's Gallery in Berlin.


World War I

After establishing himself with some success in pre-war Berlin, Beckmann volunteered for the Medical Corps of the German army at the outbreak of war and was posted to East Prussia and then to Flanders, where he met the painter Erich Heckel (1883-1970), a former member of Die Brucke. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1915, he was invalided out of the army and settled in Frankfurt-am-Main. However the experiences he did have during the war, shaped his view of the world and his art. His engravings of the early years of the conflict - exhibited in Berlin in 1917 - display a sharp and sensitive response to the conflict (The Grenade, 1915, drypoint). In later paintings he harks back to the tradition of Gothic altarpiece art, crowding a narrow space with slender figures - see, for instance, Descent from the Cross (1917, MOMA, New York); Self-Portrait with Red Scarf (1917, Staatsgal, Stuttgart). This period of Beckmann's art culminated in the cataclysmic Night (1918-19, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf), a vivid symbol of the condition of Germany in the immediate post-war years. Later on, his work would become calmer in tone, without losing the stylistic advances he had made during the war years.

1920s: Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)

During the 1920s he participated in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, showing that he considered himself to be a witness of his age, but at the same time one who drew from events general truths which he illuminated from within - see, for instance, his ten lithographs Voyage to Berlin (1922); Dance at Baden-Baden (1923) Private Collection, Munich). He also explored a variety of genres and subjects, including landscapes of an ambiguous serenity - Spring Landscape (1924, W.R.M. Cologne) - as well as still life painting, circus scenes, female nudes, and portraits. In his pictures of the circus, acrobats - with whom Beckmann secretly identified - are shown in dangerous situations, trying to achieve dangerous feats of balance - see, Tightrope-Walker (1921) drypoint. More importantly, his portrait art stands out with unmistakeable authority. He constantly strove to find the hidden spiritual dimension of his subjects and to portray this on canvas. In addition, he continued to produce numerous self-portraits, which are full of symbolism, and only rivalled by Picasso and Rembrandt in number. He and other artists from Die Neue Sachlichkeit were also inspired by realist painters from the era of German art of the 19th century, like Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900). In general, Beckmann produced beautiful, sober, expressive oil paintings, strong in contour and colour. Other images he painted include those of the Weimar Republic's cabaret culture which captured the decadent glamour of the post-war era.

Between 1925 and 1933, when he moved back to Berlin, Beckmann taught art in Frankfurt, while paying frequent visits to Italy and also to Paris, where he held a one-man show in 1931. His work was becoming more respected and in 1927, as a mark of his achievements, he received the Honorary Empire Prize for German Art and the Gold Medal of the City of Dusseldorf. In 1928 the National Gallery of Berlin acquired his painting Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. Other important paintings from this time include: Family Picture (1920, St.Louis Art Museum); The Iron Footbridge (1922, K.N.W. Dusseldorf); Dancing Bar in Baden-Baden (1923, K.N.W. Dusseldorf); Carnival: The Artist and His Wife (1925, Collection RN Ketterer, Campione, Switzerland); Rugby Players (1929, Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg); and Party in Paris (1931, Guggenheim Museum, New York).

1930s: Triptychs and Symbolism

From the 1930s onwards Beckmann’s works often carried references to the brutality of the Nazi party, and in so doing captured a universal theme of terror, redemption and fate. In addition, from 1932, his work relies on an increasing use of symbols, deployed in a large triptych format, which he 'rediscovered' and used for inspiration along with German medieval art. Examples include: Temptation (1936, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Munich); The Actors (1942, Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts); Carnival (1943, State University of Iowa) and Blindman's Buff (1945, Minneapolis Institute of Arts). Other important works include Birds' Hell (1938, St Louis Art Museum). He also abandoned plasticity in favour of two-dimensional forms - see, for instance, Departure (1932-3, MOMA, New York); The Temptation of Anthony (1936-7, Private Collection); Acrobats (1939, Private Collection). Together with the self-portraits, which continued to be central to his work - see, Self-Portrait in Black (1944, Neue Pinakothek, Munich), these triptychs and other complex compositions filled with stiff, mythological figures, with nudes, objects and animals, reveal a universe of cold, almost abstract cruetly.

Degenerate Art

In 1937, along with many other artists, Beckmann's work was classified as 'degenerate art' by the Nazi party and was banned from public display. The day after, he went into voluntary exile, moving to Amsterdam, where he remained for the next 10 years, living in poverty, waiting desperately for a visa for the United States. He never returned to Germany again.

Emigrates to America

Finally, in 1947, he received a visa and a job offer to teach at the School of Fine Arts in Washington University, Saint Louis. Many of his paintings from this late period mirror American landscapes, skyscrapers and mid-American characters. In 1949 he was awarded first prize in the exhibition Painting in the United States at the Carnegie Institute. A major retrospective of his work was held in America shortly before he died in 1950 of a heart attack. His final set of lithographs, Day and Dream, appeared in New York in 1946. His last major painting was Beginning (1949, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a foreshortened vision of human destiny, which amounted to Beckman's spiritual testament. It championed the rights of the individual in the face of the growing collectivism of the 20th century.

Reputation and Legacy

Despite his apparent failure to break into the ranks of the most famous painters, the New York art dealer Richard Feigen describes Beckmann as "the greatest artist of the 20th Century in Germany — if not in the world". Apart from a major retrospective of his works at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1964, his work was rarely seen outside of the United States after his death. This may partly be explained by the difficulty curators have in classifying his work. However, this changed in the 1990s when the several of the best art museums of Rome, Valenica, Madrid, Zurich and Munich exhibited his work. Frankfurt and Amsterdam followed in 2006 and 2007. He is now regarded as one of the great 20th century painters.

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