In the very middle of our century, two days after Christmas of 1950, Max Beckmann collapsed as he was walking from his home on West 69th Street in Manhattan to take his customary stroll in Central Park. He was dead before the policeman who saw him fall had rushed to his side. Thus after an Odyssey of almost two decades, he died in the city which he had learned to love and in which he was beginning to feel at home. Premonitions of death had been with him for many years, but they seemed, if anything, to stimulate his creative powers. From his diary,1 one of the great human documents of our time, we learn that the last of the triptychs, The Argonauts, was finished on Christmas Eve while several other canvases stood around in various degrees of completion in the true Beckmann manner of working. He was deeply mourned by the many friends he had gained in this country in less than four years as well as by a morally reawakened Germany which had once honored and later rejected him.
Beckmann’s appearance was impressively masculine. His square and massive body carried a powerfully yet sensitively sculptured head. To many he may have seemed formidable at first acquaintance, but his warm and gentle human qualities would soon become apparent. His art, too, may at first appear blunt and aggressive, but those who study it will soon discover not only a profound visionary mind, but one of the most sensitive hands in modern art, a hand not only of a master draftsman who had been able to compress the diversity of the visible world into a hieroglyphic language of his own, but also of a master painter who was highly sensitive to surface texture and color relationships. It is no wonder that these qualities, so rare among German Expressionists, gained him the respect, if not the love, of the French.
Although he is now universally considered one of the major figures of German Expressionism, Beckmann himself disdained any such classification, a disdain which he shared with his great contemporaries, Nolde and Kokoschka. None of these three painters could for very long endure the shackles of a collective effort within a group, now matter how revolutionary and liberal it purported to be. Like many artists of this era, they knew and admired the primitive art of Africa and the South Seas as well as the expressive, anti-naturalistic aspects of medieval art, but they could not worship these above all other experiences, both in nature and art. They had absorbed much of the great tradition of European painting—not through the dry channels of academic teaching, but through independent discovery—and it was to a large extent the broader scope of their art which enabled them to retain their creative powers after the fever heat of Expressionism as a movement had cooled off, a process which had begun before the Nazis embarked on their campaign against what they termed degenerate art.
Like Rembrandt, Goya and Cézanne, whom he so greatly admired, Beckmann attained his full measure as an artist comparatively late in life. Born in Leipzig in 1884 and trained at the Art Academy of Weimar, he moved to Berlin late in 1904 where he soon achieved considerable success, painting in a vigorous broad manner which is not unlike the work of Liebermann, Corinth and Slevogt, the chief exponents of a German idiom of Impressionism. Now and then, however, a prophetic work like the Great Death Scene of 1906, rejected by a Berlin Jury but highly praised by the great Edvard Munch, forecasts his later style. Kirchner, guiding spirit of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, both born in 1880, had fully developed their revolutionary styles during the first decade of the century, and even Kokoschka, who is two years younger than Beckmann, had already created some of his greatest and most characteristic portraits (to name but one: Herwarth Walden of 1910,) before Beckmann had found his personal means of expression.
Beckmann’s turning point came in Frankfurt as he was slowly recovering from a severe physical breakdown, which in 1915 had terminated his war service in the medical corps of the German army. His new monumental and archaic style was fully revealed in the powerful paintings of 1917, such as Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (included in the great retrospective exhibition shown at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1949). For the first time, we find here the large, eloquent gestures of enormous hands and the new concept of space which utterly rejects the Renaissance concept of perspective. Also new is the bright and brilliant palette. Northern Gothic feeling, which prevails in this painting, became less prominent in the works after 1920, but the basic elements of expression remained consistent. At this time, Beckmann loved to fill his compositions to the bursting point with three dimensional figures and objects, and this is true even of his landscapes. For him, space was not a thing into which figures and objects can be composed, but it is created by them and does not exist without them. All utterances of life interested him, but he was especially fascinated by the human comedy of big city life, such as night clubs, carnivals and cabarets (vaudeville). These subjects occur again and again in his work of the twenties as well as in his late triptychs.
In 1924, Gustav Hartlaub, the progressive and enterprising director of the Mannheim Museum, invited Beckmann to take part in an exhibition entitled Neue Sachlichkeit (New Realism or New Objectivity) in which, among others, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Schrimpf and Kanoldt were represented. Although this classification may fairly well apply to the general trend of Beckmann’s style in these years, it cannot do justice to the spiritual and symbolic elements which already then were present in his art. The following year, Beckmann became Professor at the Frankfurt art school. His style lost some of the excessive tightness and tension of the preceding years, and at the same time, his compositions became simpler and more monumental while his brushwork gained in freedom, warmth and sensitivity.
In 1930, Beckmann was honored by a great retrospective exhibition in Basel, and this was without doubt the apex of his career. But ever increasing malicious attacks by reactionary forces, hard at work even before Hitler’s illegal seizure of power in Germany, forced him to resign his post in Frankfurt, and in 1933 he moved to Berlin which at that time had not yet succumbed to the Nazi heel. There he remained until the day before the opening of the infamous degenerate art exhibition in 1937 which included many of his paintings removed from German museums. That night he and his wife fled to Amsterdam.
In Holland, only a handful of people knew his name, and soon he was to find himself in the precarious position of a German expatriate living in a country which was overrun by the Germans. Miraculously, he was not molested. Perhaps his son, Peter, who was a physician in the German air force, and old friends had been able to pull strings. Nevertheless, during the winter of 1944/45 he came very close to being drafted—at the age of sixty!—into the German army which at that point filled its depleted ranks with children and old men. It is difficult to imagine how he could have produced painting after painting in these years, had he not been sustained by a strong belief in his mission as an artist as well as by the indomitable courage and selfless devotion of his wife, Quappi. Neither should we forget such loyal friends as the art dealer, Dr. Helmut Lütjens, who continued to but paintings from Beckmann, although there was at the time practically no market for them, or Dr. Stephan Lackner, now of Santa Barbara, who extended a helping hand in these desperate years.
In 1947, the final chapter of Beckmann’s life began. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Curt Valentin and Perry T. Rathbone, he came to the United States, first to teach at Washington University in St. Louis and later at the Brooklyn School of Art. Once again, he was in contact with the younger generation of painters, as he had been in Frankfurt. Teaching was a serious matter for him although it must have seemed a chore, as he needed all his energy for his own work. Occasional terse remarks in the diary express joy over progress in class—”types gradually develop and souls become more tangible”—or concern over financial struggles of students. Neither does the diary fail to mention the presence of a pretty girl in the class room, like the very polite girl in St. Louis whom he simply called Miss Thank You. For a great painter, nothing in the visual realm is insignificant, and the diary faithfully records such rituals as feeding the squirrels in Central Park or visiting the three black gorillas whom he had discovered the day after his arrival in New York. A good meal in pleasant company would not be neglected either, and in this respect, Minneapolis did not do badly (“Ragout of pheasant, first time in U.S.A. . . .Champagne at the end”). This was in January 1949, when the great Beckmann Exhibition which had been organized by the City Art Museum of St. Louis was shown at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. America and especially New York fascinated Beckmann, as one would have assumed even from his work done in Germany during the twenties. But even though Beckmann appreciated this second period of success as well as every kindness that was shown him, one thing stands out clearly to the reader of his diary: He had been too deeply touched by the tragicomedy of life to regard success with anything but humor and skepticism, almost like a bystander who sees all this happen to another person. He summed it up in his priceless favorite phrase whenever he spoke of vernisages and parties in his honor: “Grosses Geschrei um Beckmann—na ja!” (big shouting about Beckmann—so what!) He had moved on to other fields, and nothing now mattered much except those long silent hours of work in which he wrestled with the eternal problems of mankind.
It would be academic to speculate whether Beckmann would have ever turned to painting triptychs, had his material existence not been brutally disrupted by political events and had he known less suffering. Obviously, he chose that traditional sacred form, which is based on the concept of the Holy Trinity, because he wished to communicate pictorial thoughts of extraordinary symbolic importance to him. Thus they are not religious paintings in the traditional sense, but rather expressions of a very personal philosophy. The first of the triptychs, Departure (Museum of Modern Art), was finished in 1935 in Berlin. Although inspired by the disturbing events of the day, it has a universal symbolic significance divorced from any particular time or place. Allusions to ancient Greek mythology and, as we shall see later, elements of Greek art began to appear more and more frequently in his work.
Of Beckmann’s nine triptychs, two were painted in Berlin, five in Amsterdam, and two in America. Blindman’s Buff, the largest of them all, is the last of the American triptychs. While working on it, he himself was inclined to consider it his most important work. In Beckmann’s own diary, the progress of Blindman’s Buff can be traced from the end of September, 1944, through October, 1945. Conditions were most adverse in this last year of the war—air raids, lack of food, of coal and electricity are mentioned in passing (much of the work was done by candle light), but the work itself is always the principal theme of the diary which reveals much about the artist’s working habits. Sometimes he would work “vigorously,” “intensively,” even “furiously” eight to ten hours a day on the triptych, sometimes he would mull over it indecisively. Then again he would not touch the painting for a week or so, meanwhile working on a number of smaller paintings. In the beginning there was also much uncertainty about the title, a fact which suggests that much of the symbolism expressed in the painting evolved gradually during the process of working.
The first entry of September 30, 1944, reads: “Vigorously on left and right panels of triptych The Concert or so.” On October 4, Beckmann speaks of the Great Café, then on October 18, it became the Great Bar and from December, 1944, through June, 1945, it is fairly consistently referred to as the Great Cabaret. Not until the end of March, 1945, do we ever read a word about the center panel, but once that grandiose composition was started, it made rapid progress. On June 16, Beckmann stated “ . . .after for hours of work in the morning, center panel of Cabaret Grand has assumed definitive shape. That restored my courage.” A few days later an event occurred that suddenly brightened the outlook into a future which up to then had appeared bleak and uncertain; to quote the diary, “Telegram from Valentin, New York!! One should not believe it.” On July 1, he writes almost triumphantly, “Intensively and magnificently on center panel of Great Ox-Feast (Ochsen-Fest). I am certain that it is going to be my most outstanding picture.” This new change of titles suggests that the artist quite suddenly had added the Minotaur in a dinner jacket. On July 16, the center panel is reported “completed in a rough state,” but on July 21, we read: “Eight to ten hours of work. . .but now satisfied with center panel of triptych” and on the following day: “Dog-tired. Again five hours on Ox-Feast (almost finished).” Finally, on August 7, the definitive title Blindman’s Buff (Blinde Kuh) is established. During the month of August, the completion is announced a number of times, but each time Beckmann went back to work and fussed a little here and there. On September 19, he wrote almost nostalgically as though he could not tear himself away: “Now I am finally finished with Blindman’s Buff and regretfully I must leave these dark yet so festive rooms.” Again the next day: “Still one more farewell to the left panel by electric light—it was beautiful.” On November 2, the triptych was carried out of the studio and moved to Dr. Lütjen’s premises.
Beckmann’s symbolism is completely expressed in pictorial terms which he himself found impossible to put into words. About his Departure he once wrote to Curt Valentin: “It can only speak to people who consciously or unconsciously already carry within themselves a similar metaphysical code.” Still we must be grateful to Perry T. Rathbone 2 who wrote some most illuminating remarks about this and the other triptychs, based on his many conversations with the artist, and to Mrs. Beckmann who recalled a few of her husband’s sparse remarks.3
To the spectator, it must become clear at once that there is a fateful, predestined connection between the two principal figures on the side panels: the young woman kneeling before a candle on the left panel and the blindfolded young man on the right panel, figures which are placed and posed in a manner which recalls portraits of donors on fifteenth-century triptychs. But in place of the saints who usually assist such donors, we find oddly assorted groups of people who seem preoccupied with the pursuit of their pleasures and vices. Are the two men on the left panel whispering temptation into the ears of the kneeling young woman who pays them no heed? On the right panel, a large sharply featured faunish head appears between a blond Northern and a dark Mediterranean beauty, while a tiny page girl holds a sign which is half hidden but might possibly read “Grosse Bar.” Beckmann himself was not sure that the kneeling young woman and the blindfolded young man would find their destiny—that is in this case, each other. The whole trend of ideas is vaguely reminiscent of The Magic Flute.
Beckmann called the figures of the center panel The Gods. There, the immortals play the tunes which govern the lives of the mortals: The chaste, virginal harp player, delineated in rigid, angular forms, is effectively contrasted with the two languorous reclining figures, one male, the other female, both playing the sensuous pipe, and the ferocious savage, beating the drum of war. But what is the role of the man with the animal head, embracing a young woman? Beckmann himself in the diary spoke of the Minotaur, but actually it appears to be a horse’s head rather then a bull’s head. Perhaps the artist did not wish to commit himself to any definite literal allusion. Therefore it could be Jupiter and Venus, Jupiter and Europa or the Minotaur to whom the flower of Athenian youth had to be sacrificed each year, before he was slain by Theseus.
Actually several of the figures find their ancestors in classical Greek sculpture, but of course they have been transformed into Beckmann’s own expressive idiom. Thus we may discover the famous reclining Theseus from the Parthenon (British Museum) in the male pipe player while both the pipe playing girl and the harpist are partially based on figures on the reliefs of the so-called Ludovisi Throne in Rome and its counterpart in Boston.
Virtue and vice, culture and savagery are welded into one of the most complex, but at the same time, most perfectly rhythmical compositions to come from Beckmann ’s brush. The soft circular curve, which is made up by the two pipe players and supported by the Minotaur groups, creates an element of repose which is effectively counteracted, but not cancelled out, by the many harsh angles, long vertical and oblique lines.
However, the final integration of these forms could not only have been consumed by the color. Most effective is the cool and brilliant contrast between a greenish yellow and a blue violet, permeating all three panels (the floor of the entire stage is yellow), but most strongly concentrated in the harp player. These two colors are effectively counter-balanced by a bright orange red and by a variety of flesh tomes, ranging from a delicate blond down to deep orange-brown, and occasional touches of green. The overall effect is festive and rich, translucent like precious stones, and there is a feeling of a superbly controlled harmony, which is almost unique in German painting of Beckmann’s era. It is a masterpiece of twentieth-century art.
Referenced Works of Art
- Max Beckmann, Tagebücher 1940-1950. Zusammengestellt von Mathilde Q. Beckmann, herausgegeben von Erhard Göpel. Munich (1955).
- Max Beckmann 1948. . .Retrospective Exhibition Organized by City Art Museum of St. Louis. The introduction by Perry T. Rathbone, based on many interviews with the artist and warmly praised by him, must to date be considered the most authoritative biographical and analytical study of Beckmann.
- Letter of Mrs. Beckmann to Richard S. Davis, August 2, 1954.
- Max Beckmann
Self Portrait, 1922
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Winston
- Max Beckmann, German, 1884-1950
Blindman’s Buff, 1945
Oil on canvas
Center panel: 80 x 90 inches. Side panels: 74 1/2 x 42 1/2 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Winston
- Theseus, from the East Pediment of the Parthenon
Greek, Fifth Century, B.C.
(British Museum, London)
- Two sides for a three-sided relief
Greek, Fifth Century, B.C.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
- Girl Playing the Pipes, from so-called “Ludovisi Throne”
Greek, Fifth Century, B.C.
(Museo Nazionale Delle Terme, Rome)
- Max Beckmann
Blindman’s Buff (Center Panel)
- Max Beckmann
Blindman’s Buff (Side Panels)