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…

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