Signed in Pencil Lower Right
Image Size: approx. 7.5 x 6 inches
Opening Size: approx 10 x 8 inches
Framed Size: 23 x 20 3/8 inches
Max Beckmann was a German Expressionist painter worthy of inclusion in a great tradition - the tradition of anguished German mysticism, which first flowered in the Middle Ages. His highly personal style reflected the misery of contemporary events in Germany.
Beckmann was born in Leipzig in 1884, the youngest of three children. His father, a grain merchant, died when Beckmann was only ten years old. By the age of fifteen, after several years of boarding school and over his family's objections, he decided that his destiny lay as a painter. After failing the entrance exam for the Konigliche Akademie der Bildenden Kunste in Dresden, he was accepted by the Grossherzogliche Sachsische Kunstschule in Weimar in 1900. The School provided him with an academic art education, whereby he learned to draw from antique sculpture as well as from live models. At school, he met Minna Tube, a fellow artist whom he married in 1906 and who gave birth to his only child, Peter.
As a prosperous young man, working in the years before World War I, Beckmann was hardly a radical. He distrusted some of the young German expressionists (he called their work poster-painting) and achieved critical success with a conservative style based on impressionism. He was immensely ambitious. He wanted nothing less than to find a modern way to paint in the grand style of traditional history painting. Yet he also had a powerful expressionist streak.
Beckmann was already a success at the age of thirty when World War I broke out. He loved the street-scene turmoil and crammed his major canvases with crowds of jostling, uncongenial characters. To avoid killing, he volunteered for the medical corps and spent a year during World War I as a medical orderly; he had a nervous breakdown, and it strengthened his art. Having once viewed life as a kind of theatre, staged for the benefit of his art, he now threw himself into a furious personal struggle with the world. After the war, Beckmann portrayed city life and cafe society with mordant grace. During the 1920s he began to develop his mature style. He turned toward symbol, allegory and myth; in triptychs of the 1930s and 40s he investigated themes of freedom and constraint, the existential dilemmas of the modern artist, and the struggle between the sexes.
In 1925, Beckmann was appointed to teach in Frankfurt, a position he held until 1933. That same year, he divorced Minna Tube and married Mathilde (Quappi) von Kaulbach, who became the subject of many of his important paintings. The following year, he had his first solo exhibition in the United States, at J. B. Neumann's New Art Circle gallery in New York, thereby expanding his reputation in the international art community.
During this period Beckmann's style became richer and more complex. The example of Cezanne helped him invest his pictures with a strong linear architecture; he developed, in particular, a beautiful way with thick black lines, which gives his pictures the sluggish power of hot pitch. The example of Matisse (who used black so well) no doubt helped Beckmann master the rhythm between his increasingly lush colors. His light, in turn, became very odd. Many paintings, whatever the indication of shadow, seem lit from behind: the backlighting, the rich color and the strong black lines give some works the sturdy, but spiritual, luminosity of stained glass.
Beckmann worked in this style until the end of his life - despite increasing repression by the Nazis, since he had been branded by Hitler himself as a "degenerate painter". This prompted his immigration to Amsterdam in 1937, and in 1947 to the United States, where he taught at Washington University in St. Louis, in Brooklyn, and at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Unlike most expressionists, he did not burn out young, perhaps because he had never been just an expressionist. He sometimes painted gentle portraits and beguiling landscapes. He took pleasure in sweet as well as sour color, he favored a certain grim whimsy. His criticism is directed less at this person or that political system than at life itself. Although he himself was never an abstract painter, the New York school of abstract expressionism owes much to him for his unflagging insistence on directness and violence.
Some observers find Beckmann's enigmatic iconography a distraction from the purely visual pleasure of art. He was an artist who resolutely cast his work in a heroic mode. The self-portrait was something of a specialty with Beckmann; in them there is also an uncanny vitality and force of character.
Two days after Christmas 1950, while on a morning walk in Manhattan's Central Park, Beckmann suffered a fatal heart attack.