Max Beckmann in New Yorkby Tom McGlynn
OCTOBER 19, 2016 – FEBRUARY 20, 2017
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
New York’s cultural heritage has long been enhanced by artists forced by political circumstance to emigrate to and then set up shop in the city, altering the specific shape of institutional and private collections to which we attribute the historical discourses of modernity. Like many before him, exiled from their home countries by war and social repression, Max Beckmann wound up a somewhat accidental New Yorker. After living in Amsterdam from 1937 until 1948, in voluntary exile from the Third Reich, Beckmann wound up in the U.S. first as a teacher at Washington University in St. Louis, to ultimately relocate to Manhattan for the last two years of his life. This current exhibition of his works not only represents the paintings actually made in New York, but its curator, Sabine Rewald, has used the city as a kind of compass with which to orient the viewer within the scope of the artist’s life and vision—one that changed throughout his life challenges and geographic dislocations.
One of Beckmann’s last paintings, Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950), was finished only a few weeks before he would collapse of a heart attack on East 69th Street, while on his way to view the painting then recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is among a grouping of self-portraits that opens the exhibition and is striking in relation to them in its composition and color scheme, which both strongly reference Matisse. Beckmann considered Picasso and Matisse the artists most equal to his painterly standards and his high regard for them is a useful filter through which to view his likewise cubistic arrangements and energetic color contrasts that bind his figures into their taught, expressionistic choreography. This influence is most clearly seen in some of the earliest works, such as Still Life with Gramophone and Iris (1924) and The Bark (1926). The first is a vertically oriented work clearly influenced by synthetic cubism while the latter, also composed vertically, is reminiscent of Picasso’s pneumatic, neo-classical bathers of the 1920’s. Yet another beach-influenced work, Quappi in Blue in a Boat (1926 – 50), seems to combine the color and proportional arrangement of Matisse with the heavier, more gothic outline of Georges Rouault.
Often Beckmann’s lighting accents recall the strongly backlit, and at other times glaringly front-lit, tactics of Matisse and Picasso as well, but with a much heavier, more Germanic emphasis. One early New York reviewer mentioned the artist’s formal position as an “inheritor of the German Gothic tradition,” while another characterized his wit as a German sledgehammer to William Hogarth’s English rapier.1 Interestingly, some of the Beckmann’s final works produced in Manhattan, such as Optician’s Window and Woman with Mandolin in Yellow and Red (both 1950) take on a much lighter, more Matissean aspect in color, composition, and overall touch. Perhaps the city’s epicurean attractions, such as its jazz and night clubs he wholeheartedly took in, began to work their moderating charms on the artist’s cynical subconscious. Beckmann did remark that certain city entertainments reminded him of Weimar Germany. New York may have represented for him a nostalgic, albeit less foreboding, immersion in the rough-hewn carnival of life that often found its staging on his canvases.
A trio of Beckmann’s most complex and finest works anchor the exhibition. The earliest of this grouping, often considered his masterpiece, is Departure (1932, 1933 – 35). With this altar panel-like triptych, Beckmann achieved a powerful synthesis of radical pictorial organization, implicit political content, and heroic scale, unmatched in any of his other works. A calm central panel depicts a mythic fisher king accompanied by family and what seems to be a guardian figure. This scene is flanked by two panels depicting torture and ritual bondage. In the left, a man with his hands chopped off hangs ready for the torturer’s next blow while a woman bound at his feet seems the following victim. In the right-hand panel, a woman in white carrying a lamp is bound to an upside-down, corpse-like man—a soldier and dwarf figure ushering them along in a parade-like spectacle. Painted in 1933, the year Beckmann fled Germany after a large amount of his work was confiscated by the Nazis, the painting seems to represent the center of noble calm needed to weather the storm of degradation and sadism crowding his country. It is significant to remember that Beckmann was at the height of his national prominence just prior to the Nazi takeover, and that in fleeing Germany, he also left behind a life of secure reputation and national cultural accolade. That much of his continued historical prominence in New York museums and collections is owed to two of his most staunch promoters, the dealers Curt Valentin and J.B Neumann, both German Jews, has to be one of the most ironic turns in the narrative securing Beckmann’s place in the international modernist canon.
The second work in the trio is Birds’ Hell, painted in Paris in 1938. It is a painting that epitomizes the artist’s debt to the tradition of satiric allegory, most notably to Hieronymus Bosch’s cycle of earth, heaven and hell. Beckman replaces Bosch’s delicately drawn grotesqueries of hell with gross, heavy strokes of black that forever lock his bird torturers and human victims in a determined struggle for moral reason, together in a place where all hope for ethical salvation has been abandoned. The last of this grouping is The Beginning (1946-49), another large triptych that seems the ultimate bookend to Departure. In it the world of childhood and adolescent exploration is symbolically depicted with a lighter spirit and a more open composition. Painted at the end of his life, it strikes one as Beckmann’s contemplation on the playful origins of childhood hopes and dreams and how they remain intact, despite the adult horrors that may have conspired to rob them of their perennially restorative powers.
- Adolf Glassgold, “Max Beckmann” The Arts 11, no.5 (May 1927) p242 and M.P. “The Art Galleries” The New Yorker, April 23, 1927, p 107.