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The Circus of Max Beckmann

Following the Gnostics, Beckmann saw the world as a prison of lost souls, chained to sexual desires and violent impulses from which we should try to escape to a better, purer state beyond material creation—precisely what the old god, climbing the ladder, was offering the argonauts in Beckmann’s last painting. Many of Beckmann’s paintings are in fact celebrations of sensuality, such as the gorgeous Reclining Nude (1929), on which he seems to have applied his creamy paint as though he were caressing the model’s curves. But sex is also shown as an expression of violence: women are tied up, men are bound in chains, great candles are dripping all over the place, and people are flayed, throttled, and hanged. Beckmann insisted that there was beauty in all this horror, a theme to which I shall return presently.

Apart from Cézanne, whom he admired for his creation of a painterly reality, Beckmann often mentioned Blake and the Douanier Rousseau (“Homer in a porter’s lodge”) as fellow visionaries who inspired him. But there is, of course, a long German tradition of metaphysical painting. The spiky figures in such pictures as Descent from the Cross (1917) remind one of Gothic art, as do the luminous blues and reds of his paintings in the 1940s, which are like stained-glass windows. Beckmann’s treatment of death and decay is reminiscent of Matthias Grünewald. And his depictions of man and the sea bear some resemblance to the brooding seascapes of Caspar David Friedrich.

German Romanticism often teeters on the edge of morbid sentimentality, and sometimes falls right into it. What saves Beckmann’s art from sickliness, or the Gothic soft porn of such painters as Arnold Böcklin, is his realism. Although, unlike Grosz, he was not a satirist or a chronicler of his times, Beckmann’s scenes of violence and erotic power plays were closely observed, and his paintings of the 1910s and 1920s still have a firm sense of place. The drypoint pictures of carnage in World War I have the immediacy of delirious reportage. The Grenade (1915), showing soldiers being torn apart by a grenade attack, is as horrifying as anything by Goya.

Beckmann’s experiences at the front, which led to a nervous breakdown, radically changed the way he composed his images. As though real horror had made him a visionary of hell, people in the war pictures, but also in more allegorical paintings such as The Crucifixion (1917) or Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1917), are stretched and pulled across the canvas in strange, angular, tortured shapes. His friend the publisher Reinhard Piper remembers Beckmann saying that he wanted to use his pictures “to defy God.” He wanted his pictures to “accuse God of everything he had done wrong.”

But Beckmann also took an aesthetic delight in horror and mayhem. The wartime prints and paintings reveal quite starkly the tension between sensuality and repulsion that marks so much of Beckmann’s work. He wrote to his first wife, Minna, from the field hospital in Flanders: “I saw fantastic things. Half-clothed men streaming with blood, being bandaged in white down below in the half-light. Huge pain. New ideas of the flagellation of Christ.” This was typical of his unsentimental, even brutal way of seeing beauty in the worst human suffering, but also of his propensity to convert what he saw into allegory or myth.

Beckmann used Christian images to show the terrors of war, which sometimes contained recognizable characters, including the artist himself as Jesus Christ. He did something similar in later paintings, where he expressed the collective madness of Nazism, or the human slavery to violent passions, or the loneliness of exile, in Greek or Nordic myths. None of Beckmann’s paintings can be reduced to just one of these themes. Meaning is multilayered and the feelings expressed are always complex: horror and fascination, spirituality and earthiness, engagement in the world and detachment from it. This is why his pictures have a depth that George Grosz, despite his great talent, rarely achieved in his work.

In the 1920s, a period of relative calm, personal happiness, and professional success, Beckmann is most down-to-earth. His paintings of Frankfurt contain fantastic elements: church spires which didn’t exist, factories in the wrong places, shapes of houses, bridges, and street lamps blown up out of proportion. But this is still an observed world, most of which actually existed outside Beckmann’s own mind. Those people bathing at the Lido (1924) or dancing in Baden-Baden (1923) could well have been there, even if they were changed in Beckmann’s vision into helpless, almost somnambulistic figures, unaware of the catastrophes that lay in wait for them. The dancers, packed together inside the picture frame, look in danger of suffocating, if not from a lack of fresh air, then perhaps from boredom. The swimmers are falling backward, swept away by the surf, like playthings of violent nature.

It is in the 1930s, with Hitler’s rise, that Beckmann turns more and more to a world that existed entirely in his own mind, a world of myths and allegories mixed with the nightclub scenes and circus performances that continued to feed his imagination. By the time he was denounced by Hitler’s artistic arbiters as a degenerate artist in 1937, Beckmann was at the top of his powers. The triptych entitled Temptation (1936–1937) is a sadomasochistic phantasmagoria, featuring a murderous Nordic god, a sinister young liftboy in a Berlin hotel leading a crawling woman by a leash, a sexy blonde chained to a spear, a caged society woman cradling a fox and pecked by a diabolical bird, and a shackled man holding up a mirror to a voluptuous nude.

Here are Beckmann’s habitual themes: violence between men and women, sensual bondage in a world of evil. But they are put into the grisly contemporary context of the Nazi state, where former lift boys, as it were, really did come to power, and Nordic gods represented sheer malevolence. In this painting, Beckmann found the perfect balance between reality and myth, in which the metaphysical looked real, and reality resembled a fantasy. Beckmann was always after this effect of dreamlike realism, and was delighted when he saw it reflected in real life. On one of his solitary visits to an Amsterdam dance hall just after the war, he suddenly spotted Cary Grant. At first, he noted in his diary, “I thought it was a scene in a movie. Strangely unreal.”

Beckmann’s paintings of sexual violence are never pretty, of course. He criticized Picasso and Matisse for making their art too decorative, too much like beautiful wallpaper. Not enough German Innerlichkeit, perhaps. But whereas Picasso could in fact be brutally aggressive in his paintings of women, Beckmann’s women always look seductive. Sex is never disgusting, as it is in paintings by some of his German contemporaries (Otto Dix, say). He seems to be saying that if sex, and women, were not so beguiling, we would not feel so enslaved by our desires.

The day after Hitler’s radio speech about degenerate art, on July 18, 1937, Beckmann packed his bags and moved to Amsterdam with his second wife, Quappi, never to return to Germany. His state of mind as an artistic refugee (Beckmann was neither Jewish nor overtly political) is beautifully revealed in his self-portraits of that time. One of them, ironically entitled Released, shows him in chains, his ashen face a portrait of despair. On his left shoulder you can just make out the word “Amerika,” the Beckmanns’ actual destination before they got stuck in Amsterdam. A self-portrait painted in 1938 is one of his most beautiful. The horn, a favorite symbol of art and sexual power, is reversed, and held to his ear, like a huge ear trumpet. Beckmann is dressed in what looks like a striped dressing gown, but could also be a convict’s uniform. In exile, he retreated into his studio on the first floor of a tobacco warehouse, the horn his symbolic receptacle of news from the monstrous world outside.

One of the peculiar things about Beckmann’s paintings in Amsterdam, where he lived until he finally left for America in 1947, is that so few of them show anything of the city itself. Many are of Beckmann’s singular imaginary world of myths and symbols. Others are created from memory: the Dream of Monte Carlo (1940), for example, a nightmare gambling casino in sickly yellows and greens, filled with demonic gamblers, sluttish women, and masked men about to release bombs. Others still are claustrophobic theater scenes full of personal terrors. In the middle of a triptych, The Actors (1941– 1942), Beckmann himself appears, wearing a crown, and stabbing himself in the chest with a sword.

As a German artist in a provincial capital under German occupation, Beckmann was almost totally isolated in Amsterdam. The Dutch took little notice of him, and the Nazis could only regard this “degenerate” artist with the deepest distrust. Other German exiles, in similar circumstances, committed suicide or lapsed into a state of depressive inertia. Not Beckmann. He painted, and painted, and painted. The fact that he had never been a joiner was surely a help.

Beckmann despised any collective activity. For a time, in the 1910s, he was a member of the Berlin Secession, but soon quit after disagreements with his fellow artists. “The sportsmaniac is the soul of the collective man,” he wrote in 1925. When asked, in 1928, what he felt about politics, he answered:

I am a painter, or, according to a highly unsympathetic collective notion, an artist. In any case, somehow displaced. Displaced also in politics. This [political] enterprise can only become of interest to me, once it has done with the materialist era, and turns in a new way to metaphysical, or transcendental, or religious matters.

Beckmann always had been offshore: the solitary drinker at the hotel bar full of revelers.

This was true, even among fellow exiles in Amsterdam, whom he did meet from time to time. In Four Men Around a Table (1943), we see four German exiles, a philosopher and three painters, one of whom is Beckmann. They are jumbled together, like prisoners in a cell. The colors are somber, the mood gloomy. A huge candle illuminates the faces of three men, one holding a fish, the other two holding vegetables—a reference perhaps to the lack of food, but at the same time symbolic of their personalities. Beckmann, alone, sits in the shadow, with a mirror in his hand.

The Amsterdam paintings are among the darkest, but also the best of Beckmann’s works. Other famous artists of the Weimar period went into inner emigration, or languished abroad. Otto Dix was reduced to painting kitschy Christmas-card landscapes in Germany. Grosz, in New York, celebrated Americana or did unsuccessful allegorical pictures of Nazi Germany. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner died, a broken man, in 1938. Emil Nolde stayed in Germany, but was not allowed to paint. But Beckmann, like Max Ernst, another survivor, carried his world in his head, and that is what you see in his Amsterdam paintings.

Even after the war was over, and Beckmann was able to exhibit again, the darkness of his visions did not immediately let up. Men and women are still chained together in iron cages, and the carnival figures in grotesque masks are still in evidence. So are the ladders, as a means to ascend to higher things, and the phallic swords. But there is hope of a new beginning, a new life in the new world, and something of that optimism begins to shine through.

One of the most moving paintings, The Cabins, was painted in 1948, after he had moved with his wife to the US. Inspired by their voyage aboard the Westerdam from Rotterdam to New York, the painting is a kind of X-ray of life on an ocean liner, but with strange metaphysical touches: here a young woman is combing her hair, there a couple is making love, there a person is drawing a ship, and there an angel is displaying herself, it seems, to a kind of slave driver with a whip. Cutting right through all this is an old sailor, Beckmann himself, tied to a giant fish.

This fish, in Beckmann’s art, as well as in myths, is a symbol of fertility, of sexuality, of knowledge, but also of the soul. It is, in this painting, as if Beckmann is sailing to the New World with his creative soul intact. He was sixty-three, and despite some old-fashioned European doubts about the superficiality of American culture, he was excited by what he saw. In New York, he wrote, “The tower of Babylon has… become the mass erection of a monstrous (senseless?) will. So I like it.”

The color and energy of the US appealed to Beckmann’s sensual side. His paintings become brighter. The Town, painted in New York in 1950, contains the familiar Beckmann symbols: severed heads, phallic candles, swords, and what look like two giant black dildos. But it is not a hellish scene. Death is very much there, of course. A dark figure with a grotesque protruding tongue, like the corpse of a hanged man, points to another world beyond the frame of the picture. But there is still life, in the beautiful nude woman inviting sex, as an American minstrel plays his guitar by her bedside.

And yet, Beckmann felt too old, too tired, and too ill to give in any longer to what he liked to call the illusions of desire. The war years had damaged him, mentally and physically, and he had a serious heart condition. It is always interesting to see how a great artist faces his mortality. Picasso tried to defy the onset of impotence and the closing in of death in a last bravura performance of furious eroticism. Beckmann, partly no doubt inspired by his mystical readings, saw death more as a release, a liberation even, a journey to another world. He told his wife, Quappi, that death just meant a change of clothes, as it were, a “metaphysical move.” He would be naked as the figure in Falling Man (1950), tumbling into a blue, watery abyss.

It is tempting, as some writers on Beckmann have done, to see intimations of his death in the last paintings. Christiane Zeiller, one of the contributors to the catalog of the Paris exhibition, suggests that the old god in The Argonauts is pointing the way to the world of the dead. Others have speculated that Beckmann’s last self-portrait, painted in 1950, of the artist dressed in a bright blue jacket, standing in front of a canvas, while smoking a cigarette and staring, not at the viewer, but at some distant spot, is a picture of an old man’s vision of his own death.

It is possible. All we know for sure is that Beckmann finished The Argonauts on December 26. The next day he left his apartment at 38 West 69th Street, to go to an exhibition of new American art. One of the paintings on show was his last Self-Portrait in Blue. On the corner of Central Park West and 61st Street, he had a heart attack and died.

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