Max Beckmann  

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"I hardly need to abstract things, for each object is unreal enough already, so unreal that I can only make it real by means of painting."


Max Beckmann's fortunes changed with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, whose dislike of Modern Art quickly led to its suppression by the state. In 1933, the Nazi government called Beckmann a "cultural Bolshevik" and dismissed him from his teaching position at the Art School in Frankfurt. In 1937 the government confiscated more than 500 of his works from German museums, putting several on display in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. The day after Hitler's radio speech about degenerate art in 1937, Beckmann left Germany with his second wife, Quappi, for The Netherlands.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Max Beckmann (February 12, 1884 – December 27, 1950) was a German painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer. In the 1920s, he was associated with the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), an outgrowth of Expressionism that opposed its introverted emotionalism.

His best-known painting is Departure.

Themes and techniques

From its beginnings in the fin de siècle up to its completion after World War II, Beckmann's work reflects an era of radical changes in both art and history. Many of Max Beckmann‘s paintings express the agonies of Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Some of his imagery refers to the decadent glamour of the Weimar Republic's cabaret culture, but from the Thirties on, his works often contain mythologised references to the brutalities of the Nazis. Beyond these immediate concerns, his subjects and symbols assume a larger meaning, voicing universal themes of terror, redemption, and the mysteries of eternity and fate.

Unlike several of his avant-garde contemporaries, Beckmann rejected non-representational painting. He took up and advanced the tradition of figurative painting, following its technical and spiritual masters, above all Cezanne, but also Van Gogh, Blake, Rembrandt, Rubens and the Magic Realists of the late Middle Ages, such as Bosch, Brueghel and Matthias Grünewald. Encompassing portraiture, landscape, still life, mythology and the fantastic, his work created a very personal but authentic version of modernism, combining this with traditional plasticity. Beckmann reinvented the triptych and expanded this archetype of medieval painting into a looking glass of contemporary humanity.

New York art dealer Richard L Feigen described him as “the greatest artist of the 20th Century in Germany — if not in the world.”

Beckmann's legacy

Beckmann's posthumous reputation perhaps suffered from his very individual artistic path; like Oskar Kokoschka, he defies the convenient categorization that provides themes for critics, art historians and curators. Other than a major retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1964-65 (with an excellent catalogue by Peter Selz), and MoMA's prominent display of the triptych "Departure", his work was little seen in America for decades. His 1984 centenary was marked in the New York area only by a modest exhibit at Nassau County's suburban art museum. But in recent years, Max Beckmann's work has gained an increasing international reputation. There have been retrospectives and exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (1995) and the Guggenheim Museum (1996) in New York, and the principal museums of Rome (1996), Valencia (1996), Madrid (1997), Zurich (1998), St Louis (1998/1999), Munich (2000) and Frankfurt (2006). In Spain and Italy, Beckmann's work has been accessible to a wider public for the first time. In 2001, a large-scale Beckmann retrospective took place at Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Tate Modern in London.

In 1996, Piper, Beckmann's German publisher, released the third and last volume of the artist’s letters, whose wit and vision rank him among the strongest writers of the German tongue. His essays, plays and, above all, his diaries are also unique historical documents. A selection of Beckmann's writings [1] was issued in America in 1996.

In 2003, Stephan Reimertz, Parisian novelist and art historian, published the biography of Max Beckmann. It presents many photos and sources for the first time. The biography reveals Beckmann's contemplations on writers and philosophers such as Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Richard Wagner. The book has not yet been translated into English.

See also





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Max Beckmann" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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