Between 1932 and his death in 1950, Max Beckmann painted nine monumental triptychs, undeniably his most profound, and complete artistic statements. He was painting a tenth when he died. He worked on Blindman's Buff
, the seventh and largest triptych, from September, 1944 to October, 1945, while in voluntary exile in Amsterdam. Convinced of this complex painting's success, Beckmann wrote in his diary that he was certain it would be his most outstanding work.1
From his diary, we also learn that the title of the work went through a number of changes-from The Concert
to Grand Cafe
, Grand Bar
, back to Grand Bar
, then Great Cabaret
and Great Oxfeast
—before he finally decided on Blindman's Buff
about two and a half months before its completion.2
As in the other triptychs, Beckmann boldly synthesized familiar images from the visible world with less familiar, fanciful, and more ambiguous ones to present powerful but concealed messages about life and human predicament. Several large themes that Beckmann often dealt with are suggested by Blindman's Buff
—human cruelty, anguish, and spiritual decay.
But, because Blindman's Buff abounds in enigmatic pictorial metaphors it cannot be literally interpreted. There is no single or correct explanation for its imagery, which changed constantly as Beckmann worked on it. Acknowledging the frustration of trying to interpret his own works, Beckmann wrote while working on one of the triptychs,
"With furious tension one waits for the explanation of the secret. I believe in the unknown."3 Although many scholars have proposed various interpretations of the complicated symbolism in this triptych,4 it is important to remember that Beckmann did not mean for his images to be read in any specific way. They are deliberately ambiguous to encourage each spectator to actively and subjectively participate in the painting. The images don't represent people or events or qualities, but, rather, they remind us of people and events and qualities. Often, a single image evokes several things.
Beckmann did believe that his ambiguous messages could best be comprehended by people with concerns and feelings similar to his own. Also, he acknowledged that his art spoke to the historical moment in which he lived but felt that it could be applied to all times. He believed that through contemplation and creative sympathy, each individual would arrive at some unique understanding of each painting.
The triptych format of Blindman's Buff was popularized in Europe during the late medieval period and the early Renaissance, when it was used primarily for altarpieces. As in religious paintings, Beckmann presents a complex of figures with symbolic meaning. However, for his setting, he abandons the mystical world of angels and saints in favor of a contemporary hotel cafe/bar. Two youthful kneeling figures take the place of the donors who frequently appear in the side panels of a Renaissance triptych.
Beckmann did not employ traditional Christian iconography in the triptychs; rather, these paintings expressed his own personal religious philosophy. He said that he painted to understand the "mystery of existence."5 He observed and recorded the world around him in order to try to understand the mystery behind human existence. He believed the unknown could be understood only by penetrating as deeply as possible into the known. Art was a way for him to work through questions he had about the way things were, such as, why people behaved the way they did—especially towards one another. It was something bigger than any individual, something bigger than the visible world, something empty and enigmatic in space, that embodied his concept of God. Perhaps his son Peter summarized the artist's beliefs best when he wrote, "Beckmann struggled for a lifetime to give shape and order to the chaos of nature, both his own and ours."6
Relationship to theater
The art historian, Claude Gandelman, has suggested that Beckmann's triptych format and crowded, complex compositions were influenced by the nature of German theater of the 1920s.7 The action in these dramas often took place on several stages simultaneously. In George Kaiser's Die Lederköpfe (The Leatherheads), for example, the stage was divided into three vertical tiers, and the different scenes included two of the themes so popular in many of Beckmann's works—torture and music. The underlying philosophy of the simultaneous stage was to present the world as a rich complex of diverging, or even more often than not, contradictory meanings. The triptychs, too, are filled with contradictions, relating to what Beckmann called the mystery of life and suggesting both simultaneity and casual disconnection.8
In the central panel, a collection of figures that Beckmann called "the gods" perform a concert. A reclining male pipe player recalls the idealized gods of classical antiquity while a seated drummer refers to less refined or "barbaric" civilizations. Near him sits a reserved, dreamy, and presumably virginal female harpist. In contrast, behind them lies an overtly sexual bare-breasted woman playing a pipe, a familiar phallic symbol. Off to the left an animal headed man, whom Beckmann designated "the minotaur," assaults a well dressed and unsuspecting woman. A peculiar cart, a flaming cauldron, and extra instruments litter the floor; with them is a clock that lacks both XII and I, perhaps to suggest that at this cafe time has no end or beginning. The dual ideas of vice and virtue and/or culture and barbarism suggested by this central group continue in the side panels. Here, Beckmann conveys his message in entirely more contemporaneous terms—namely, the young couple. In keeping with the notion of childhood innocence suggested by the painting's title, the young couple appears innocent and uninitiated when compared to the worldly crowd around them.
On the left kneels the young woman. Though out of place and entirely self-absorbed, she drinks a glass of champagne and smokes a cigarette. A candle burns before her. Next to her sits another woman, while anonymous men of questionable repute whisper in her ears. A host of other self-absorbed and unhappy bar patrons crowd the space around them.
On the right panel stands a blindfolded young man holding a burning candle. Nearby a small bellhop holds a sign announcing that this is the Great Bar. Though two young women, in the company of an evil-looking man, tempt the blindfolded man with touches and flowers, he remains as yet untainted. The candle, his gesture, and his placement clearly link him to the kneeling young woman on the left.
USE OF CONTRASTS
Beckmann very frequently filled his paintings with contrasts, opposites, and contradictions, in order to point out that nothing was entirely good or wholly evil. He once said,
Black and white are the two elements I have to do with. For good or evil, I cannot see everything in black or everything in white: if I could, it would be simpler and less ambiguous, but it would also be unreal. Many people, I know, would like to see everything white, that is objectively beautiful, or black, that is negative and ugly; but I can only express myself in both together. Only in the combination of white and black can I see God as a unity, taking shape again and again in the great, ever-changing spectacle of the world.9
In order to be universal, a painting had to reflect the contrasts in the world. Many of the contrasts and contradictions in Blindman's Buff
are discussed in the themes and motifs section below.
THEMES AND MOTIFS
presents several themes and motifs which preoccupied the artist.
Cafes and Bars
While painting this triptych, Beckmann referred to it by many other titles, including Grand Cafe, Grand Bar, and Cabaret. When still in Berlin, he frequently depicted the cafes and bars where people flocked to escape the unbearable horror of everyday life. The interaction of individuals drawn together by fate intrigued the artist, and bars and cafes were prime spots to witness such encounters. He found most fascinating the sadness that underlay the atmosphere of orgy and celebration.
Employing nervous lines, fragmented forms, and a bustle of activity, he conveyed the private anguish and separation of a broad cross-section of society. In a 1918 print, Cafe Music, Beckmann included his own self-portrait, blindfolded and clearly disgusted by the herd instinct he witnessed in the cafes. Similarly, the diverse crowd in Blindman's Buff, painted twenty-six years later, portrays the bar as a place where illusion and reality clash—as a place filled both with music and misery. The cabaret atmosphere would suggest that the people should be enjoying themselves, yet not one of them smiles. If anything, they look as though they are in a trance.
Beckmann, alluding to this dual implication of the bar, wrote upon completing Blindman's Buff, "... and I must sadly leave these dark yet so festive rooms."10 Writing about this dual quality of Blindman's Buff, Charles Kessler wrote, "There is a strangely mixed mood of social festivity and private self-absorption, of conventional party manners and ritualistic spectacle."11 Even those raising the cacophony are psychologically remote from one another. In contrast to the noisy central panel, silent withdrawal and hushed whispers set the tone for the outer panels. Perhaps the irresolution of the tension between pleasure and pain is best represented by the young man on the right who is at once surrounded by light, but blindfolded, unable to see it or experience it.
The presence of the bellhop indicates that this is a hotel bar/cafe. For Beckmann, hotels provided a metaphor for the transience and arbitrariness of human existence.12 He frequented elegant hotel bars and cafes, including the Hotel Polen in Amsterdam, where he observed the interactions of uprooted individuals brought together only by circumstance. He described the hotel bellhop as the 20th-century messenger of fate. In Blindman's Buff the uniformed bellhop, in vain, points the blindfolded young man in the direction of the young woman, alluding to the predicament of the lonely people gathered in the great hotel bar. One cannot find his or her destiny in such a mindless and corrupt place.
Women and Men
The relationship between man and woman formulates one of the central themes in Beckmann's work. The opposition between them, being both destructive and essential to life, cannot be overcome.
Beckmann clearly links the young man and woman in the side panels by means of their candles, gestures, expressions, and their placement in the composition. Though the woman is not literally blindfolded, her eyes are lifeless. In spite of the many indications that these two belong together, Beckmann was not sure that they would "find their destiny—that is, in this case, each other."13 The two protagonists hint at his belief that people are innately good but inevitably affected by the tragedy around them.
Conflicts between men and women occur throughout the composition. Figures solicit one another through subtle or obvious advances and find themselves uncomfortably close in terms of physical space, but psychologically separate. There is no indication that any happy union is possible here.
The candle is one of Beckmann's most pervasive metaphors and appears frequently in the triptychs. Traditionally the candle has alluded to the ephemerality of life. While this could in part be true for Beckmann's work, it seems rather to symbolize the desire to find and understand one's self, but, at the same time, ultimately the difficulties of doing so because of spiritual blindness and oppression.
Beckmann frequently depicted both specific and generalized gods, perhaps as a means of fusing different cultures, mythologies, customs, and religions in his paintings. Gods, being both of this world and another, seem to represent an aspect of that vital mystery, which Beckmann sought to come in touch with in his art. The gods and their music can transcend the present and link it with the past and future.
In the central panel a motley collection of musicians that Beckmann called "the gods" perform a concert which could only result in dissonance.14 Through "the gods" Beckmann brilliantly contrasts the animal, primitive, and lustful side of human nature with the refined, cultural, and controlled side. He does not necessarily portray one side as better or worse than the other. This contrast is evident in the juxtaposition of the reclining pipe player and the fierce drummer and in the opposition of the female gods; the harp player sits rigid and uptight in a closed position while the overtly sexual pipe player indecorously sprawls on the sofa, her bosom bared.
If the contrast suggested by these figures was not explicit enough, human literally becomes animal in the form of the well-dressed animal-headed man who clutches a surprised woman, her white skin set off by the deep black of his head and suit. In his diary Beckmann referred to this figure as a Minotaur, but the head appears to be that of a horse, rather than a bull. Perhaps he only loosely suggests the mythological creature to whom Athenian youth were sacrificed yearly, keeping the association open enough for viewers to interpret it in their own ways, in terms of their own times. The part human and part animal creature certainly suggests the dual nature of humans, ruled by both intellect and instinct.
The ambiguous mood of good and evil and the sense of contrast which the figures provide are reinforced by Beckmann's handling of the visual elements, particularly color, spatial manipulation, and composition.
Beckmann uses contrasts of color throughout Blindman's Buff to suggest meaning and to enhance the impact of his message. Applied in "patches" to the flesh and clothing of the figures and to the walls and floor of the room, the color contributes an alarming, uneasy note to the mood of the work. Pure local colors and broken tones appear side by side in accordance with Beckmann's belief that they should be used together because each needed to be complemented by the other. The bright colors frequently clash with one another. These clashes are essential to the discordant mood established in the work. Like the scene, many of the colors are festive, but when juxtaposed, the mood they suggest is tense. The garishness of the colors and the black outlines that heighten their intensity confirm that this is Beckmann's interpretation of reality and not an imitation of it.
Beckmann unifies the panels through his pervasive use of yellows and through his consistent contrast of those yellows with rich blue-violets. These are counterbalanced by a variety of red, orange, and flesh tones, which are accentuated by touches of green. His juxtaposition of both flat and modeled color areas, as in the face of the kneeling woman or in the placement of figures against the minimally represented walls, suggests the appearance of luminous stained glass. The evocation of light through color was an important element of Beckmann's expression of mystery. Light, as something intangible and mysterious, embodied an element of the unknown that so intrigued him, and it also could penetrate the colors of the known world.
Beckmann's manipulation of color contributes to the sense of claustrophobic space in Blindman's Buff. He attached special significance to space in his paintings since he regarded space as a vehicle to help him to discover and translate the intangible mystery of being into painting. He considered the embodiment of height, breadth, and depth on a flat surface as a magical experience that intimated a fourth dimension.
The figures in this painting are constrained within a very limited pictorial space. They can barely move within this space, let alone break out of it. The distortion of pictorial space is just one way which Beckmann suggests constraint and denial of freedom in many of his works.15 By manipulating the proportions of the interior space and its inhabitants—by crowding his canvas with large, substantial figures, yet compressing them into a very tight space—he achieves the appearance of constraint.In Blindman's Buff he organizes the figures on flat frieze-like strips which appear layered behind and above each other. Because he stacks the figures in this way, there is little believable extension into depth. This heightens the physical proximity of the mentally divorced patrons.
This triptych is the only one in which all three panels represent one continuous space. However, he uses space to signify the difference between the central figures and those on the outside. The figures in the outer panels are clearly more confined and constrained than the free-spirited gods in the central panel.
There is no true continuum of space between the three parts of this painting. The columns on the inner edge of each side panel clearly demark a separation between the gods and the bar patrons. The figures look, move, and gesture in all directions contributing to the sense of distraction and restlessness that pervades this environment. For example, although the young but separated couple direct attention towards the central panel and each other, other figures divert the viewer completely away from it.
Beckmann does, however superficially, draw connections between the two side panels that lend some sense of balance to the composition. The paired columns clearly establish an architectural space and lend some stability to the scene. Further, in both panels, curved railings—gold on the left and red on the right—separate a few figures from the rest of the company. The couple, of course, ties the parts together as do the objects that surround them, most significantly their candles.
The complex crowd of large and small figures draws us into this ambiguous scene filled with hidden meaning. In 1938, Beckmann said, "What I want to show in my work is the idea which hides itself behind so-called reality. I am seeking for the bridge which leads from the visible to the invisible,. . . ."16 For art, he believed, is the quest for our own identity.17 It comes as little surprise then that Blindman's Buff is at once a picture of daily life as Beckmann knew it and a complex statement of universal truths hidden behind the characters and objects which occupy this dark but so festive room. Owing to Beckmann's deliberate ambiguity, the painting contains messages relevant to every individual who experiences it.
||Born in Leipzig.
||Enters the Academy of Weimar, one of the best art schools in Germany where he studies for three years.
||Enlists in German army field medical corps.
||Discharged from the army on medical grounds.
||Completes more than 200 prints and writes four plays.
||His work is exhibited in Germany, Switzerland, Paris, and the United States.
||Begins work on his first triptych, Departure.
||The Nazis assume power, and Beckmann, labeled a "degenerate" artist by them, is dismissed from his teaching post at the Frankfurt Art School.
||Eight or nine of his paintings are included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition assembled by the Nazis in Munich. Beckmann leaves Berlin for Amsterdam and never returns to Germany again.
||Holland occupied by Nazi troops.
||Paints Blindman's Buff.
||After turning down invitations to teach in Darmstadt and Berlin, Beckmann accepts a teaching post in St. Louis at Washington University and moves to the United States.
||Moves to New York to teach at the Brooklyn Museum Art School.
||Dies after a heart attack.
Arnason, H. H., History of Modern Art
, New York, 1968, pp. 314-15.
Gandelman, Claude, "Max Beckmann's Triptychs and the Simultaneous Stage of the 20's," Art History, December 1978, pp. 472-83.
Hartt, Art, Vol. II, New York.
Heartney, Eleanor, "Blindman's Buff," Arts, January, 1986, pp. 11-14.
Joachim, H., "Blindman's Buff, a Triptych by Max Beckmann," The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, XLVII, January-March 1958, pp. 1-13.
Kessler, Charles, "Blindman's Buff: A Triptych by Max Beckmann," Gazette des Beaux Arts, February 1968.
Kessler, Charles S., Max Beckmann's Triptychs, Cambridge, Mass, 1970.
Lackner, Stephan, Max Beckmann, New York, 1977.
Max Beckmann 1948, Catalog of the Retrospective Exhibition organized by the City Art Museum of St. Louis.
Max Beckmann: The Triptychs, The Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1980.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, XXXVIII, January 22, 1949.
Rathbone, Perry T., The Stylistic Development and Symbolism, Boston, 1964.
Selz, Peter, Max Beckmann, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1965.
The St. Louis Art Museum, Max Beckmann Retrospective, Edited by Carla Schulz-Hoffmann and Judith C. Weiss, The St. Louis Art Museum, 1984.
Willett, John, Max Beckmann 1884-1950, Catalog of the Exhibit at the Tate Gallery, London, 1965.
- Use on the following tours:
- Highlights of the Museum's Collection
- 19th- and 20th-Century Art
- People and Places
- Visual Choices
- Spirituality and Art
- Classics and the Classical Influence
- World Mythology
- Beckmann's development of style can be addressed by comparing this work to The Skaters, painted in 1932.
- Compare Beckmann's use of classical allusions to Poussin's. How are they different? Why are they different?
- Beckmann's use of the triptych form has led critics to cite medieval influences on his work. Barlach was also influenced by medieval style. Compare Beckmann's triptych to Barlach's Fighter of the Spirit or The Avenger. In what ways do either (both) works show this influence?
- Encourage individuals in your group to share their responses to and interpretations of the images in Blindman's Buff in order to make the point that Beckmann wanted each viewer to find personal meaning in the painting.
- Ask your group to see how many pairs they can find in this painting to get them looking at details. Then see how many pairs of opposites they can find. (See the Contrasts section of this entry.)
- On a tour of Classics and the Classical Influence, compare the "gods" of the central panel to other classical references in paintings, such as Mignard's Venus and Adonis and Prud'hon's The Union of Love and Friendship.
- Peter Selz, Max Beckmann (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964), p. 82. Selz's source was Max Beckmann, Tagebucher 1940-1950 (Munich: Albert Langen-Georg Muller, 1955), entry for July 1, 1945, p. 113.
- According to Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, "Blindman's Buff" is a very old established children's game. "Buff" here is short for buffet and is an allusion to the three buffs or pats which the "blindman" gets to administer when he has caught a player.
- Quoted in Selz, Max Beckmann, p. 79.
- See sources by Joachim, Kessler, Rathbone and The St. Louis Art Museum (1984) listed in bibliography for more detailed information on Beckmann's use of symbolism. Several writers propose identifications and meanings for the various items and figures in Blindman's Buff, such as the candles, the man with the pointed ears, the clock, the weapons, the columns, and "the gods" in the central panel, but few of these can be confirmed.
- Max Beckmann, "On my painting," a lecture given at the New Burlington Gallery, London, July 21, 1938. Quoted in The Whitechapel Art Gallery, Max Beckmann: The Triptychs (Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1980), p. 9.
- Peter Beckmann, "Beckmann's Path to His Freedom," in St. Louis Art Museum, Max Beckmann Retrospective, edited by Carla Schulz-Hoffmann and Judith C. Weiss, (St. Louis Art Museum, 1988), p. 13.
- Claude Gandelman, "Max Beckmann's Triptychs and the Simultaneous Stage of the 20s," Art History, December 1978, pp. 472-83.
- Max Beckmann was a great devotee of the theater and even wrote two dramas.
- This interest in simultaneity is seen in a number of other early 20th-century movements in art and literature, such as Futurism, Cubism, and Constructivism, and the works of Proust, Joyce, and Virginia Woolfe.
- Max Beckmann, "On my Painting," quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery, p. 9.
- Max Beckmann, Diary entry for September 19, 1945, quoted in Charles S. Kessler, Max Beckmann's Triptychs (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 69.
- Charles S. Kessler, "Blindman's Buff: A Triptych by Max Beckmann," Gazette des Beaux Arts, February, 1968, p. 127.
- Carla Schulz-Hoffmann, "Bars, Fetters, and Masks: The Problem of Constraint in the Works of Max Beckmann," in The St. Louis Art Museum, Max Beckmann Retrospective, p. 108.
- Selz, p. 85.
- Many writers have suggested identities and sources for these gods, however, only the minotaur was identified by Beckmann.
- Carla Schulz-Hoffmann, p. 16.
- Beckmann, "On My Painting," quoted in Whitechapel, p. 10.
- Ibid, p. 10.