German Painter, Printmaker, and Draftsman
New York, New York, USA
Summary of Max Beckmann
After enduring a "great injury to his soul" during World War I, Max Beckmann channeled his experience of modern life into expressive images that haunt the viewer with their intensity of emotion and symbolism. Despite his early leanings toward academicism and Expressionism, he became one of the main artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement and created scathing visual critiques of the tumultuous interwar period. In later works, Beckmann strove toward open-ended stories that juxtaposed scenes from reality, dreams, myths, and fables. Throughout his career, he firmly opposed the turn toward abstract art and maintained his desire to "get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting." Beckmann's prowess at subtly layering figures and signs, as well as color and shadow, allowed him to successfully translate his reality into mesmerizing narrative paintings throughout his prolific career.
- Beckmann was a medical officer during World War I, an experience that instigated a drastic shift in his artistic style away from a traditional, academic technique towards a more critically engaged and expressive style of painting.
- Beckmann deftly combined allegorical figures and images from reality in artworks rife with semiotic play that conveyed his individual interpretation of the cultural, social, and political climate throughout his career.
- Beckmann was preoccupied by the desire for thorough self-knowledge and, in this pursuit, executed over 85 self-portraits in a variety of media. This continued refinement of self-representation underlined his firm, lifelong belief in the importance of the autonomy of artists and their visions of the world.
- Beckmann experimented with the format of a triptych, or three-paneled painting. He translated the antiquated format, previously used only for medieval religious paintings, into the ideal support for his modern secular allegories.
Biography of Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann was born and raised in Leipzig, Germany, the youngest of three children in an upper-middle-class family. His father, Carl Beckmann, was a grain merchant who passed away in 1894. His mother, Antoine Beckmann, relocated the family to Braunschweig, where Max lived with his mother and brother for the next several years. He attended a few private educational institutions, including a boarding school run by a Protestant minister from which he infamously ran away when he was ten.
Important Art by Max Beckmann
Executed when he was only 21, Young Men by the Sea demonstrates the young artist's solid academic training and thorough visual understanding of the body. In this large canvas, he portrayed several nudes in a variety of poses across the composition, lending the work an appearance of an advanced anatomical study. The composition and subject are a tribute to the work of Post-Impressionists like Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh, whose work Beckmann had encountered while in France the year before. The illusionistic space, size of the canvas, and monumentality of the figures all tie the painting to the academic tradition. Beckmann had yet to decipher his mature, individualized style that characterizes his later works. Despite the traditional nature of the work, Beckmann was able to connect his training with his own love of the sea. He was both awed and unnerved by the infinity of the oceans, and tempered the endless space of the horizon with the profusion of classical figures in the foreground. This conventional painting was greatly admired within the academies and museums of Germany. Not only did Beckmann receive the Villa Romana prize for this work, but the Weimar museum acquired it the following year. Although he achieved success with this early style, Beckmann later moved toward a more expressive mode better suited to the dramatic subjects he wished to portray.
Painted shortly after his mother's death from cancer, Small Death Scene not only recalls the artist's own experience of grief and mourning, but also bears the influence of the psychologically-laden work of the Expressionist Edvard Munch. The loose brushwork is indebted to the Impressionists, but the painting does not record the effects of light on a particular scene as observed by the artist. Instead, Beckmann reveals an individualized rendition of a group of mourners through the juxtaposition of highly contrasting tones of red, white, and black. This choice of charged colors heightens the emotional experience represented on the canvas, a typical Expressionist device. Focusing on the grieving figures in the foreground, Beckmann portrays features such as a starkly white face or a hand with tensely outstretched fingers in order to more fully convey the pain of bereavement. This painting illustrates Beckmann's move away from the monumental, historical representations common to the academic training he received and towards the depiction of small, private moments. The collapsed space, vivid palette, and emotional figures elucidate the growing influence of the Expressionist movement, which dominated the German art scene during the early-20th century, on his work.
One of the first paintings completed after his military service during World War I, Adam and Eve bears little resemblance to his prewar landscapes or large-scale narratives. The canvas is mostly devoid of color; instead, it is dominated by a variety of grays that lend the work a general tone of melancholy and create a shallow spatial dimension. The muddy tones similarly demonstrate Beckmann's shift towards moralizing images, in which every element, even the color of the paint, bears deeper meaning. The bright pop of the yellow lily and the serpent's red eye contrast sharply with the drab palette Beckmann used to portray the flat landscape and gaunt figures, drawing the viewer's eye to them immediately. These archetypes convey Beckmann's appreciation for symbolism and allegory; here, he uses the lily to allude to purity and redemption, while the fiery red of the serpent's eye emphasizes the mercurial nature of the devil. The two symbols succinctly narrate the aftermath of the fall of man, cycling through original sin to the promise of salvation.
Aside from the tonally symbolic schema of the painting, the jagged outlines, flat planes of color, and shallow space are the result of Beckmann's synthesis of a variety of sources. The brutal, twisted figures are indebted to medieval German artists like Matthias Grunewald and Hans Baldung Grien, who used similar depictions to represent pain and suffering. The appropriation of medieval styles and subject matter illustrates the Neue Sachlichkeit's drive to reinvigorate German tradition within the context of modernity. In contrast with the medieval influence, the organization of space on the canvas is clearly influenced by the compressed compositions of the Cubists, while the critical tone of the representation is tied to the social commentary of the Expressionists. Beckmann's incorporation of these varied movements resulted in the definition of a personal style and initiated the most successful period of his career. The resulting painting can be read as an allegory warning against the temptation of a reprise of the violence, cruelty, and destruction that plagued Germany during World War I. The dark outlines, disproportionate figures, and shallow space all serve to heighten this effect and later became hallmarks of Beckmann's mature style.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Max Beckmann
- Self-Portrait in Words: Collected Writings and Statements, 1903-1950Our PickBy Max Beckmann and Barbara Copeland Buenger
- On My PaintingBy Max Beckmann
- Max Beckmann and the SelfBy Wendy Beckett
- Max BeckmannOur PickBy Susanne Bieber, et al.
- Max Beckmann (Modern Masters)By Peter Selz
- Max Beckmann, 1884-1950: The Path to MythBy Reinhard Spieler
- Vampires, Ghosts Haunted Max Beckmann During N.Y. ExileBy Catherine Hickley / Business Week / December 11, 2011
- Chuckling Darkly at DisasterOur PickBy Michael Kimmelman / New York Times / June 27, 2003
- The FatalistOur PickBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / January 30, 2003
- Grim VisionsBy James Graff / Time / September 29, 2002
- Beyond Sardonic, to HopefulBy Holland Cotter / New York Times / October 11, 1996