Max Beckmann: Powerful Magic in Madrid

Detail of Autorretrato con Corneta (Self-Portrait with Horn), 1938, by Max Beckman. (Neue galerie, Nueva York, y coleccion privada. © Max Beckmann)
Labeled degenerate by the Nazis, Beckmann mesmerizes viewers today with his raw, weird, and deeply spiritual paintings.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum’s moving new show is Beckmann: Exile Figures. I wrote about the Prado’s Mariano Fortuny show earlier this year, and I’ll write about the Prado again soon since 2019 is its 200th anniversary. Across the street, the Thyssen is one of Madrid’s great museums, too. It’s a comprehensive museum of masterpieces of Western art from the Renaissance to the 1980s, collected by Baron Hans Thyssen-Bornemisza, and incidentally, it has the best holdings of American art outside the United States. It always does good shows. Max Beckmann (1884–1950) was German and among the baron’s favorites.

As I walked through the show earlier this week, I thought of many things. For Spanish audiences, and I suppose for me, Beckmann is both known and unknown. His self-portraits are famous and numerous, though they’re tributes not to egomania but to a strong independent streak. Less familiar are his narrative work and biography.

His art is deeply political. Unlike most artists today who profess to be political, he actually has something universal and important to say. Beckmann, I thought, makes today’s engagés look like mewling pups. Most seem to think that if they plop a figure with orange hair in the middle of whatever art they’re making, they can congratulate themselves for being edgy and relevant. In reality, all they are is tiresome.

No artist seems more reflective of his age, so the show is a great history lesson. Beckmann experienced three ugly epochs in humanity. He served on the front in the German army during the First World War, as a hospital orderly and a war artist. He broke down, probably from shell shock, spent time in a mental institution, and was discharged in 1915. He was a leading artist and intellectual in Frankfurt during the weird and manic 1920s and ’30s. Gradually, the Nazis stripped him of his job as an art professor and his ability to market his work. His many paintings in public collections were removed from view. After being labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis in the mid ’30s, he went into hiding, living in a clandestine, often desperate exile in Amsterdam while the Nazis occupied the city and most of Europe. He was harassed but never imprisoned. In 1947, he came to the United States to teach art at Washington University in St. Louis. He then taught at the Brooklyn Art School in New York, working there until his death in 1950. He was a few days away from getting his American citizenship when he collapsed in Manhattan on the corner of Central Park West and 69th Street. If his work seems serious, it’s because he had something serious to say, based on hard experience.

First, a look at his style. The show is a retrospective and can be experienced strictly on artistic evolution. Beckmann was a visceral painter, with bold and assertive figures, a treatment of paint that grows more slashing, neon colors, and fantasy that evolves from a touch to a dollop. A 1925 double portrait of Beckmann and his wife dressed as carnival performers is partly whimsy — the carnival as a subject is a French rococo invention — but partly weird, too. They look like puppets. Disguise means they’re hiding some truths or shielding themselves from it, but it’s fine. It’s dress-up.

By 1930, the weirdness turns sinister, and in walking through the show, I often thought of how the musical Cabaret unfolds. Both Beckmann and Isherwood, who wrote the novel on which the musical is based, were creatures of the day’s cafe society. The story’s Master of Ceremonies could be a Beckmann figure. Beckmann shuttled between Paris and Frankfurt, and by the early ’30s both cities had bad jitters.

Carnival in Paris points toward Beckmann’s future. His work begins to have a nightmare’s triple punch, outlandish and ephemeral but also real. A soldier dances with a woman, curvy and statuesque and wearing a helmet, and he seems about to stab her in the back. Another figure arbitrarily blares a horn. “A stab in the back” was the constant post-war German rhetorical device used to posit blame for everything that went wrong. Beckmann uses it often, but rather than blame, he sees treachery as an essential part of human character and not circumstantial.

Left: Double retrato, Carnival (Double-Portrait, Carnival), 1925, by Max Beckmann. Right: Hombre cayendo (Falling Man), 1950, by Max Beckmann. (Museum Kuntspalast, Düsseldorf/National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mrs. Max Beckmann/© Max Beckmann)

The show is wisely divided into two sections, before and after he fled to Amsterdam as an exile in 1937. I thought I wouldn’t be writing about the end of the First World War again, but the show is about that war, as well as the war that followed it and the interval. One part treats his 1919 lithographs. Beckmann is an artist of city life, what he called “the great orchestra of humanity” and what the show’s catalogue calls “that great hubbub of egoism, banality, cruelty, and stupidity.” Beckmann was a good writer, but so is Tomàs Llorens, the show’s curator. Beckmann saw cities as the place for modern living, where every single person is what he called “a unique identity” freed from tradition, interconnectedness, or rural life’s attention to the dictates of nature. Cities are places of spectacle, too, as well as reinvention and hiding.

His prints are filled with packed scenes of group misery populated by dirty, drunken, demobilized soldiers, hungry families, deformed veterans, and workers on the barricades. Beckmann doesn’t blame any single person or political move. “I reproach God for His errors,” he wrote. “He has made us in such a way that we cannot love one another.” Almost all of this year’s commemorations of the 1918 armistice focused on the United States, Britain, and France, who won the war and emerged with basic systems of governance and economics intact. Germany’s collapsed. It briefly got back on wobbly feet via the Weimar Republic and then collapsed again, giving us the Nazis.

In many ways, and this surprised me, Beckmann is a traditionalist. His work is divided into longstanding genres of portraiture, landscape, still life, and allegory. He belongs to an old northern European tradition, both German and Dutch, focusing on what I call the fullness of life rather than a Renaissance-based, Italian approach of ideal beauty. His figures and settings are raw and real.

This leads him to a key divergence from most avant-garde artists. He’s never decorative, like Matisse. He’s not self-indulgent or hedonistic like Picasso often is. He’s not doctrinal, either. He’s not into systems or constructions like Mondrian or Malevich. He’s literal — there are lots of circus performers but also bathers, workers, baristas, and countless barflies — but also what the catalogue aptly calls conglomerative. They evoke different conditions, among them pain, performance, fantasy or incongruity, states of memory, exile, and reinvention, often simultaneously in the same picture or in a single figure.

One of the show’s many strengths is its balance between Beckmann’s style and his substance, which are separate but mutually reinforcing. As a figure painter, he’s brilliant. His figures seem carved from wood, which gives them volume but also quotes the German woodcut tradition. Italians might see Raphael or Michelangelo as the mother ships of their art. For Germans, it’s Dürer and his woodcuts. His contours are thick black lines, quoting the leading in medieval stained glass. But his figures aren’t stiff. In Prunier, from 1944, his figures, though abstract and totemic, have plenty of flex. Even his tortured figures move in muscular anguish and recoil.

As a colorist, he’s divine. His garments are tapestries of incongruous colors — often electric purples, yellows, and greens — delivered in dabs that make sense. The show’s brilliantly chosen wall colors, light brown in the beginning but later deep purple and lacquer red, do them justice. The last two, for his exile and post-war pictures, allow his scenes to look supercharged. They develop the stained-glass red and green he uses. Art as Beckmann sees it exists as life’s scar or a scab, and this explains his rough figure style, too.

In his post-war work, abundant in the show, he focuses on memory and on the testimonials of a witness. First of all, it seemed very old-fashioned when I thought about the young abstract expressionists who were ruling New York art, but then I noted how decorative they seem, how their absence of clear content sometimes seems inappropriate to the history-making times. Of course, Beckmann was an old man by then, and he came from an entirely different point of view, so it may — or may not — be a comparison of apples and oranges. I’m not decided, and the show left me wrestling with the question.

In exploring memory, he often used triptychs, for many reasons. Triptychs lend themselves to narrative by virtue of multiple parts. They’re not for home décor since they’re big and seem public in scale. They suggest the liturgical, since the triptych was a favorite format for altarpieces. The Beginning, from 1946-49, is one of his many takes on the life of a refugee. It’s three scenes from his childhood. His late work often shows scenes from the Bible and Greek mythology, usually involving travel that reimagines and reinvents, such as The Argonauts, from 1949-50, not only a very good portrayal of nudes but a tribute to the durability of art — and humanity — amid chaos.

Los argonautas (The Argonauts), 1949-1950, Max Beckmann. (National Gallery of Art, Donation of Mrs. Max Beckmann/© Max Beckmann)

One of his last pictures, from 1950, is Falling Man. It’s a shocking picture, showing as it does a tumbling figure framed by two burning skyscrapers. Were it not for September 11, I’d think of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. It burned his wings, and he fell to his death. Too much of Beckmann’s work is about endurance rather than hubris and punishment. Unlike Goya, he rarely kills anyone off. There’s cruelty, but the atrocities are mostly psychological. Beckmann’s wife wrote that Beckmann saw the man as having been dumped from the clouds by angels, falling to earth to live there amid its horrors but also its delights.

This makes sense and is consistent with Beckmann’s courage, resilience, deep spirituality, and a strong sense of hope. His is a timely message, and it seems to be where he landed in 1950, living in New York, about to become a proud, new American citizen: Be tough because life is tough, but also be grateful. It’s a message many of today’s artists, and their adoring public, both of whom often seem so whiney, might care to absorb.

So we have biography, history, great art, and many provocative points and good questions to ponder. Tomàs Llorens is a distinguished curator who, together with Beckmann’s work, creates some powerful magic.


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