The exhibit and the catalog focus on the pictures Beckmann painted while living in New York and on works in New York collections. Beckmann was driven out of Germany in 1937, denounced as a "degenerate artist." After ten years of self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, he moved to America, eventually ending up in New York. He loved New York: "Babylon is a kindergarten by comparison," stated the artist in admiration.
There is an amusing the description of Beckmann's fondness for seedy drinking dives on the one hand, and his habit, on the other hand, of dropping by the Plaza after a long day of painting for a "recovery cocktail" in the posh hotel. His personality was a mass of contradictions. His taste for reading German philosophy contrasted with his taste for carnival and Chinese horror films. His paintings were full of salacious and violent imagery, but he modified some of them in deference to American prudery. He scorned interpretations of his work, but he secretly confided to his wife what he was up to. This book reports on some of those confidences.
There are detailed write-ups on the paintings in the exhibit. These offer fascinating biographical tidbits, identification of models where possible, discussions of Beckmann’s work methods, and insights into his imagery from personal to political to mythological.
The reproductions are excellent. Even rather gloomy colors come alive. The portraits are particularly impressive. Beckmann painted some eighty self-portraits, and this book has powerful examples. I found the portraits of his wife Quappi especially charming.
If you are going to the exhibit, or have any interest in German Expressionism, I highly recommend this book.
Max Beckmann in New York,’ a Belated but Full-Blown Homage to a German Modernist
Max Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket” (1950), in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that highlights the artist’s connection to New York.Credit2016 Max Beckmann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; St. Louis Art Museum
During the years of the Weimar Republic (1919-33), the Expressionist painter Max Beckmann was one of Germany’s most celebrated living artists. Then the Nazis designated him a degenerate artist and began confiscating his works. He and his wife, Mathilde, known as Quappi, left Germany in 1937 and moved to Amsterdam, where they stayed until 1947, when they were finally granted a visa to come to the United States. Here he remained, for two years teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, and for his last years, until his death in 1950, residing in New York City.
Happily, Beckmann’s short time in America was among the most productive of his career, as is beautifully demonstrated by “Max Beckmann in New York,” a stunning exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s the best show I’ve seen anywhere in New York this year.
On paper, the show’s concept sounds unpromising. It was to gather paintings Beckmann made while in New York and all the Beckmann paintings now owned by museums and private collectors in New York regardless of when they were made. If this sounds like a recipe for a mishmash, it’s not. There’s not a single dud among the 39 works in the show, which was organized by Sabine Rewald, a curator of modern art at the Met. Including portraits of Quappi and others, still-lifes, cityscapes and several of his most ambitious allegorical visions, it will warm the hearts of Beckmann’s fans and serve as an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with his deeply and vigorously humane art.
It opens with seven self-portraits from 1923 to 1950. With this genre, Beckmann was in a league with Rembrandt and van Gogh. Along with a viscerally sensuous feeling for paint, he had a playfully theatrical sense of self. In the earliest piece, “Self-Portrait With a Cigarette” (1923), he appears in a tuxedo holding a cigarette between two fingers. With his blocky, heavily shadowed head, closely cropped hair and pugnacious gaze, he looks like a Hollywood gangster. In “Self-Portrait With White Hat” (1926), he’s jauntily sporting a sailor’s cap. In “Self-Portrait With Horn” (1938), he’s wearing a red-and-black-striped robe, holding up a silver bugle and looking sideways, as if listening for a response to his prophetic signal of approaching apocalypse.Continue reading the main story
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“Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket” (1950), which shows him hip-length taking a puff on a cigarette, has a poignant back story. It was included in the Met exhibition “American Painting Today, 1950,” which precipitated a protest by a group of Abstract Expressionists known as the Irascibles for its putative conservatism. On Dec. 27, Beckmann set out on foot to see the show. At the corner of Central Park West and 69th Street, he collapsed from a heart attack and died. He was 66 and still at the height of his artistic powers.Photo
“Quappi in Gray” (1948), Beckmann’s portrait of his wife.Credit2016 Max Beckmann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; Private Collection, New York
Besides its painterly urgency, much of the power of Beckmann’s art is in its metaphorical inventiveness. “Bird’s Hell” (1938) is a political commentary masked as a darkly comical fantasy. It depicts a multitude of monstrously anthropomorphized birds in a candlelit room. One bird tortures a hogtied man in the foreground using a knife to carve bloody lines into his back. At the center of the picture, a furious blue figure with multiple breasts bursts out of a giant eggshell with one arm raised in a “Sieg heil” salute, a gesture copied by the birds in the background. It’s hard to think of another painting that so vividly captures the sociopathic ferocity of Nazism.Photo
Beckmann’s “Departure” renders the horror of Germany in the early 1930s as a kind of Shakespearean tableau.Credit2016 Max Beckmann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; St. Louis Art Museum; Museum of Modern Art
Arguably, Beckmann’s greatest work is the 21-foot-wide triptych “Departure” (1932, 1933-35), which Alfred Barr, then director of the Museum of Modern Art, acquired in 1942. It renders the horror of Germany in the 1930s as a kind of Shakespearean tableau. To the left, people are being tortured in a dungeon; to the right, a grizzled man beats a bass drum before a stage displaying a man tied upside-down to a standing woman. A bellhop walks by with a fish under one arm. In the central panel, a gold-crowned king, his queen holding their infant, and a guardian figure in a knight’s helmet are setting out in a wooden boat against a flawless blue background of sea and sky. It’s one of the saddest paintings in the history of modern art.Photo
“Self-Portrait With a Cigarette,” which Beckmann painted in 1923.Credit2016 Max Beckmann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; Museum of Modern Art
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New York institutions have not been especially kind to Beckmann, however. Since his death, only two Beckmann retrospectives have appeared in New York museums. The first was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1964-65, and the second, also at MoMA, in 2003. If you believe that Beckmann was one of the 20th century’s artistic giants, this seems strangely neglectful, not to say scandalous, on the part of our cultural arbiters.Photo
Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait With Horn” (1938).Credit2016 Max Beckmann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; Neue Galerie New York and Private Collection
It’s worth speculating on why. When Beckmann arrived in New York it was not a propitious time for his kind of complex, allegorical, narrative painting. In the 1950s, the Abstract Expressionists would eclipse all others in the minds of the art world intelligentsia. In the ’60s and ’70s, curators went in for coolly technocratic abstraction, conceptualism and brassy, quickly digestible Pop. Beckmann’s politically and morally charged figurative art and its idiosyncratic mix of Modernist and Medieval styles, fell on blind eyes.Photo
Beckmann’s “Beginning” (1949).
Credit2016 Max Beckmann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Metropolitan Museum of Art
An especially galling dereliction of curatorial duty happened in 1971, when the Met’s curator of contemporary arts, Henry Geldzahler, deaccessioned three Beckmann paintings to buy a big, stainless-steel sculpture by David Smith. (One was “Self-Portrait With Cigarette,” from 1947, and it’s a gem.) Mr. Geldzahler also tried to sell another Beckmann, one of this exhibition’s highlights: a triptych over 11 feet wide called “Beginning” (1949). Based on childhood memories, its central panel depicts a boy riding a rocking horse and flourishing a toy sword in a crammed playroom populated by parental figures and fairy tale characters, all rendered in energetically brushy black lines and incandescent colors. It’s a joy to behold. Thankfully, Mr. Geldzahler’s plans for that painting were nipped in the bud.Photo
“Bird’s Hell” from 1938, by Max Beckmann.Credit2016 Max Beckmann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Private Collection, New York
Quappi Beckmann, however, never forgave the Met for letting go of her husband’s paintings. In 1975 she promised to bequeath two works that she kept with her for the rest of her life pointedly not to the Met but to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. They are among Beckmann’s finest efforts: “Falling Man” (1950) shows a nearly naked man plummeting from a burning skyscraper, a modern Icarus, you might say, felled for his hubris.Photo
“Self-Portrait With White Hat” from 1926 by Max Beckmann.Credit2016 Max Beckmann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn,Private Collection, New York
The other, a triptych nearly 20 feet wide called “The Argonauts” (1949-50), unfortunately not in the exhibition but reproduced in the catalog, presents the tantalizingly enigmatic central scene of a pair of naked youths on a beach, with a gray-bearded older man carrying a ladder approaching them from the sea.
Flanked by panels bearing images of an artist painting from a model in his studio and four young women playing musical instruments, it’s a soul-stirring meditation on the mysteries of art and life, and so is the whole exhibition.