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The Circus of Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann: Un Peintre dans l’histoire

an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, September 10, 2002–January 6, 2003; the Tate Modern,London, February 13–May 5, 2003;and the Museum of Modern Art,Queens, June 25–September 30, 2003


Catalog of the exhibition edited by Didier Ottinger
Centre Pompidou, 409 pp., 56! (paper)

We have nothing more to expect from the outside, only from ourselves. For we are God.”

—Max Beckmann, 19271

Max Beckmann was born in 1884 in Leipzig, and died on December 27, 1950, in New York City. He was, I think, the greatest painter to emerge from the brief but extraordinary artistic big bang of Weimar Germany. If he is less famous than some more sensational figures, it is because he was never a joiner. Beckmann went his own way, always. This is what George Grosz, a fellow New York émigré, wrote after his death: “Beckmannmaxe was a kind of hermit, the Hermann Hesse of painting, German and heavy, unapproachable, with the personality of a paperweight, utterly lacking in humor.”2

There was perhaps some truth to this none too friendly thumbnail sketch. Beckmann was not an easygoing man. His idea of a good evening out was to sit alone, dressed in a formal suit, at the bar of an expensive hotel, silently observing other people over the rim of his champagne glass. In his own house, he insisted on punctual appointments. If a person turned up even a few minutes early, Beckmann would come to the door and announce that Herr Beckmann was not yet at home. When he wasn’t working, he read Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Romantic poetry, or books about mysticism. In 1924, he began a series of ironic self-descriptions with the following statement: “Beckmann is not a very nice guy.”3

As for Hermann Hesse, it is true that Beckmann was interested in metaphysical painting, in creating images to express spiritual feelings, in “rendering the invisible visible through reality.” He saw the artist as God or, rather, as the creative rival of God. Grosz rather despised all this. He was a political man about town, inspired by the streets, a brilliant and savage caricaturist, who once described his drawings as graffiti on a toilet wall. To him, Beckmann was a plodding German dreamer who hadn’t moved with the times, and “stupidly clings to the day before yesterday.” In New York, said Grosz, photography, window displays, and Disney cartoons were much more exciting than painting. “Rimbaud,” he said, “and the great Marquis de Sade would have loved it here…. But Beckmannmaxe, he didn’t like people. A humorless man.”

Whether he knew it or not, Grosz’s blustering put-down revealed his own relative weakness as an artist, and Beckmann’s strength. Seduced by the flash of American commerce, Grosz lost much of the creative power that had made him a great satirist of Berlin between the wars. Beckmann, the visionary loner, oblivious to artistic or commercial fashion, continued to paint masterpieces, in Berlin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, St. Louis, and New York City. (He was briefly a professor at the Brooklyn Museum Art School.)

Almost all of these masterpieces are now on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, before moving to the Tate Modern in London in February, and the Museum of Modern Art in Queens in June. The Paris exhibition does him proud. With a minimum of words, and a maximum of space around the paintings, the visitor is encouraged to look at the art as one should, at one’s leisure, without the distractions of theory or overelaborate explanation.

The curators did one odd and interesting thing: they put Beckmann’s first major work, Young Men by the Sea (1905), at the very end of the exhibition, after his last painting, The Argonauts (1950), as though his painting life came full cycle, which in a way it did. But young men by the sea was a recurring theme. He painted one in 1943, and at various other times too. As in most Beckmann paintings, the scene of the first Young Men by the Sea is a blend of naturalism and myth. The naked young men, sunk in various poses of deep meditation, while one plays a flute, could be a group of German nudists, but also Greek gods come to earth. Beckmann remarked to his wife that the flute player was similar to the Orpheus figure in The Argonauts, and he appears in the 1943 painting as well, as the prototypical artist.

Space, the idea of infinity—hence the prevalence of the sea—and the place of human beings in it, was one of Beckmann’s constant preoccupations. In a letter written in 1948, Beckmann said: “Time is a human invention, but space is the palace of gods.”4 The human figures in his first major painting, which still shows the influence of Cézanne, are posed in a fairly conventional manner. Later, to illustrate the fall of man, or the voyage of Ulysses, or Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, the positioning of Beckmann’s figures in space would become far more eccentric; hurtling into the sea, or suspended from heaven, or riding on monstrous fish.

The Argonauts, described as a reworking of his first Young Men by the Sea, is much more explicit in its symbolism. Jason and his fellow Greeks, the original Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, have been transformed into artists. On the left side of the triptych is a painter and his model, on the right is a group of female musicians, and in the middle are two nude men with the sea in the background. One of them, Orpheus, is staring into the eye of a great bird. A lyre lies by his side. The other looks toward the horizon, following his inner vision, “oblivious,” in Beckmann’s description, “to his earthly surroundings.”5 Between them is an old man, bearded like a biblical prophet, climbing a ladder. Beckmann described him as a god pointing the way to a higher form of existence. The picture is an affirmation of Beckmann’s belief in art as a transcendental medium, hence the triptych, as though it were meant for a church devoted to the arts.

The Argonauts has been described as Beckmann’s greatest work. I’m not so sure of that. The symbolism is indeed a little heavy, and if all Beckmann’s work had been like this, George Grosz would have had a point about the old German dreamer. I prefer Beckmann in his more sardonic, earthier, or more savage moods. Like Rembrandt and Dürer, Beckmann was a great and prolific painter of self-portraits, recording his moods, which are, it must be said, rarely lighthearted.

Here he is, in 1907, a cocky young dandy in Florence, a cigarette, as always, dangling from his right hand; and here, in 1911, curling his lips at his critics in Berlin; and there, in 1917, baring his teeth in anger at the violence he had witnessed as a medical orderly in Flanders; and there, in 1919, as the cynical boulevardier, nursing a glass of Sekt in a Frankfurt nightclub; or as a morbid clown in 1921, a tuxedoed grandee in 1927, a frightened exile in 1937, or a frail old man in a loud American shirt, the last completed just before he died in New York.

The poses and the clothes are the props of his changing existential circumstances, masks to be donned and discarded. The hands are as expressive as the faces: flopping about in the Frankfurt nightclub, open and vulnerable in his studio in 1921, carefully shaping a sculpture in Amsterdam. But they are always large, hammy things, as if to demonstrate the artist’s creative vigor. Only in a very late portrait (not shown in Paris), done in St. Louis, where he taught at the arts school in 1948, when he knew he was very ill, do the hands look strangely shrunk, swathed in a lady’s black gloves.

Beckmann was keen on fancy dress and circus performances, or indeed performances of any kind. He loved hanging around dance halls, frequently on his own, to watch the human masquerade. Life, in his paintings, is often depicted as a cabaret, though sometimes of a somewhat gruesome kind, with torturers as ringmasters, and killers as clowns. A series of splendid prints of acrobats, dancers, and a female snake-charmer, made in 1921, shows Beckmann on the title page, ringing a bell. “Circus Beckmann” reads the banner behind his head.

The point is not, I think, just to illustrate that all life is a stage. It is to show the true self behind the masks, the metaphysical self, that is, the one which, in Beckmann’s vision, transcends mere appearances, something Germans call Innerlichkeit, inwardness, which cannot easily be described in words. This didn’t stop Beckmann from trying, however. In his 1938 lecture at the New Burlington Galleries in London, he said: “Prior to existence a soul yearns to become a self. It is this self that I seek, in life as in art.” Perhaps this doesn’t get us much further. It is easier to look at one of his self-portraits, and sense what he means.

One of the most famous, painted in Frankfurt in 1927, is Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. Beckmann stands with his back to the window, with an aloof, rather haughty, almost scornful expression, very much the grand sei-gneur, one hand resting on his hip, the other holding a smoldering cigarette, as if to say: here I stand, I’ve arrived, I’m unassailable. The curtain behind him is brown, a favorite color that reminded him of fine cigars. But what gives this picture its extraordinary elegance is the contrast of black and white. The white shirt and white cigarette stand out against the black dinner jacket, and white light from the window splash the hands and one side of the face, making it look a little sinister, like a moonlit skull.

Few painters—Manet comes to mind—applied black and white with such sensuality as Beckmann. But there was more to this than mere graphic effects. “Only in black and white,” he said in his London lecture, “can I see God as a unity, constantly recreating himself in a great terrestrial theatre performance.” God, in this case, is in Beckmann himself, God in a tuxedo.

In 1927, he was at the height of his social and artistic success. The self-portrait is a celebration of this. A “talent for self-publicity,” he said, was indispensable to an artistic career. He also said, on the same occasion, that “a budding genius” had to be taught to “respect money and power.” Cynicism was another one of Beckmann’s poses, like the clownish hats and the aristocratic dandyism. But like everything else about this enigmatic man, it was double-edged—playful and absolutely serious. He was convinced that artists should create a new metaphysical order. But it was essential “to achieve an elegant mastery of metaphysics.” And the artist, as high priest of the new order, should always be dressed in “a black suit, or, on festive occasions, in tails….”

The tension between Beckmann’s worldly and unworldly self, between his sensuality and his spiritual yearnings, his love of the world and his longing to be free from it, this is what gives his art its extraordinary power. This is the “true self” one sees be-hind the masks of his self-portraits. It also explains much of the symbol-ism in his paintings. Some images—the ubiquitous fish, the scenes of martyrdom and men falling, the phallic trumpets and spears, the large birds, like proto-angels—are borrowed from Greek myths, Christianity, Freud, and more esoteric sources, such as Kabbala and Gnosticism.

  1. 1

    Der Künstler im Staat, quoted in Max Beckmann, Die Realität der Träume in den Bildern (Munich: Piper, 1990).

  2. 2

    George Grosz: Berlin–New York (Berlin: Nationalgalerie, 1994), p. 36.

  3. 3

    Beckmann, Die Realität der Träume in den Bildern, p. 34.

  4. 4

    These letters became “Letters to a Woman Painter,” a lecture given at Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, in February 1948.

  5. 5

    Reinhard Spieler, Beckmann (Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1995), p. 180.

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