My students, art majors all, have been complaining about the readings I’ve been assigning as of late. These handouts—essays and excerpted vignettes by writers as diverse as Ernst Gombrich, Fairfield Porter, Camille Paglia, and Robertson Davies—are intended to give students an idea of the sweeping nature of art and art-making, both within academia and out in the much vilified “real world.” The point—or one of them, anyway—of these readings is to encourage students to think beyond mere self-expression and underline that, in the end, art achieves its own wily independence. The complaint is that the handouts are dispiriting. This response is prompted, in part, by the dawning realization—a realization that gains in intensity the closer graduation approaches—that the artist’s life is a tough row to hoe. There’s the cost of studio space in New York City, the vagaries of commerce, the niceties of keeping a roof over one’s head and, not least, the state of the world. What is the worth of art in an age of economic freefall, rampant terrorism, unceasing wars, and distracting technologies? Positivity of some sort would seem to be in order.
And then I found just the reading during an attempt at clearing out my bookshelves. Pulling out a dusty copy of Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp’s indispensable compendium of statements, manifestos, and observations by artists, critics, and sundry outliers, I opened it to a random page. There I read that “art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement; for transfiguration, not for the sake of play.” The writer continues:
There are two worlds: the world of spiritual life and the world of political reality. Both are manifestations of life which may sometimes coincide but are very different in principle. I must leave it to you to decide what is the more important.
What follows is an avowal, albeit a quixotic one, of art’s primacy in the face of devastation—written, no less, by a refugee fleeing a culture upended by a group of demagogues bent on world domination, ethnic purity, and with few qualms about the cost these goals might take in human life. “Human sympathy and understanding must be reinstated . . . in the midst of a boundless world turmoil.” “On My Painting,” a 1938 lecture by the German artist Max Beckmann, carries with it echoes of life, here, in the twenty-first century.
They are among the most daunting portraits in the history of art.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Beckmann’s art knows that it doesn’t trade in easy optimism. There are sunnier exemplars for artists seeking a reason to keep on keepin’ on. Beckmann’s densely packed compositions are, after all, visited by nightmarish visions marked by displacement, violence, and anomie. Torture is a commonplace and claustrophobia the rule. Chronology is overturned; historical touchstones shuffled. Myth permeates the proceedings, as does the theater. Mummers, harlots, royalty, and socialites engage in ritualistic narratives whose meaning remains occluded even as they take on grave momentum. If Beckmann’s hybrids of man and beast aren’t quite as elastic as those of Hieronymus Bosch or Francesco Goya, it’s indicative less of a lack of imagination than of an age in which faith was supplanted by doubt. Then there are the numerous self-portraits. Beckmann is pictured as ever confrontational, his terse slip of a mouth evincing a temperament hostile to, if not unamused by, nonsense. They are among the most daunting portraits in the history of art.
It came as a shock, then, to encounter a photo of an early version of Self-Portrait with Horn (1938) reproduced in the catalogue accompanying “Max Beckmann in New York.” Originally owned by Beckmann’s friend Stephan Lackner, the author and collector, the painting has since been acquired by, and become a staple of, the Neue Galerie, the museum of Germanic art located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. On the occasion of its 2008 exhibition, “Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait with Horn,” I commented on the picture’s “silence”:
Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation.
It’s hard to believe that an image haunted by an indelible mix of skepticism and sobriety was once light-hearted. But there it is, in not-so-vivid black-and-white: Beckmann smiling. Why was the image transformed, and in no small way? Sabine Rewald, the Met’s Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator for Modern Art and organizer of “Max Beckmann in New York,” conjectures that “confronting his so relentlessly cheerful self every day in the studio must have irritated [the artist].” As it stands, Self-Portrait with Horn is a powerhouse, even by Beckmann’s rigorous standards.
The Neue Galerie painting is one of seven self-portraits viewers encounter upon entering “Max Beckmann in New York.” As opening gambits go, it’s pretty bracing and divulges a surprising admixture of whimsy and artifice. The earliest self-portraits on display are dated 1923; the last is from 1950, the year of Beckmann’s death at sixty-six. Stylistically, Beckmann moved from softly modeled forms to flattened areas of color held in check by brushy black lines. (With the exception of Matisse, and including Picasso, no other twentieth-century painter employed black with as much dexterity or nuance.) Beckmann is revealed to have been more of a showman than some of us previously thought. Cognizant of the status conferred upon The Artist, Beckmann toyed with its presumptions. Whether donning a sailor suit or what looks to be a pair of pajamas, or even (and this is the giveaway) surrounding himself with circus trappings, Beckmann engages in a hugely underplayed form of self-deprecation. His “disdain for people was considerable,” wrote a journalist taking note of the artist in the early twenties, but “under his prickly shell he concealed a highly vulnerable sensitivity, one that he sometimes mockingly exposed.”
The impetus for “Max Beckmann in New York” is Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, the aforementioned canvas from 1950. Painted during the winter and spring of that year, Beckmann depicted himself as being more vigorous and virile than the rumpled figure seen in photographs of the time. The stony visage and ever-present cigarette we know about, but Beckmann’s torso swells upward like those of the warriors seen on the red Attic vases of ancient Greece, heroic images from which he took inspiration. The painting isn’t without its well-played ironies: an insomniac suffering from heart ailments and given to anxiety should be allowed some license when translating physical frailty into pictorial muscle. Beckmann’s health gave out on the corner of Sixty-ninth Street and Central Park West—he died of a heart attack on the way to see “American Painting 1950,” an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among that show’s featured attractions? Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket. The story is poignant (as Ms. Rewald notes), but am I alone in feeling that the artist might have derived a grim pleasure in its you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up circumstances?
Beckmann’s time as a New Yorker was brief: sixteen months. The road to the city was circuitous. Born in Leipzig in 1884, he studied at the Weimar Academy as a teenager and subsequently made his way to Berlin. Beckmann was ambitious from the get-go, setting himself up against the Old Masters he revered. (Early on, a critic described him as the “German Delacroix,” an appellation that must have been the source of no small pride for the young painter.) Beckmann was attuned to contemporary trends in art as well, taking note of the paintings by his countryman Louis Corinth, as well as those by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Renown came early for Beckmann and continued after his stint as a medic during the First World War. He was discharged from the army due to exhaustion—ptsd in contemporary parlance—and who can wonder that the work became caustic, blunt, and forbidding? His success as a painter and teacher came to a halt with the advent of National Socialism. The Nazis tarred Beckmann as a “cultural Bolshevik” and “degenerate.” He fled to Holland with his second wife, Mathilde, known by the nickname Quappi. After ten years squirreled away in Amsterdam, Beckmann and Quappi were granted visas to the United States in 1947. They settled first in St. Louis and then New York.
Beckmann was adamant that his art leave the studio with its mysteries intact.
“Max Beckmann in New York” includes fourteen paintings Beckmann created while living in the city, along with twenty-five works borrowed from New York collections. The show is by no means a retrospective, but it’s a reasonably full accounting all the same. The pictures span thirty years and include Beckmann’s best-known work: the magisterial Departure (1932–33), a triptych that has long been a mainstay of The Museum of Modern Art. This format was a favorite of Beckmann’s, recalling, as it did, Renaissance altarpieces. Among the highlights of the Met’s own collection is Beginning (1946–49), a triptych begun while Beckmann was exiled in Holland. A meditation on childhood (the original title was, in fact, L’Enfance), the work is beyond the bounds of rational analysis, particularly the crammed-to-the-rafters center panel in which, among much else, a sultry Amazon blows bubbles, a clown skulks in an alcove, and a cat wearing army boots is suspended, upside-down, from the ceiling. Beckmann was adamant that his art leave the studio with its mysteries intact. Responding to an American dealer who asked if a picture could be, you know, explained—presumably to aid in marketing—Beckmann ordered him to “take the picture away or send it back.”
New York City offered the kind of spectacle this most cosmopolitan of artists thrived on: “All in all, New York represents the most extreme case of grotesque gigantism until now achieved by mankind. It suits me just fine.” It’s odd that Beckmann never painted the city, at least directly. The Met show includes pictures of Frankfurt, Oakland, and San Francisco—but Manhattan? It’s seen only tangentially in Cafe Interior with Mirror-Play (1949), a vertiginous depiction of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, and Plaza (Hotel Lobby) (1950), a favorite watering hole of Beckmann’s. Ms. Rewald posits The Town (City Night) (1950) as an “ ‘homage’ to nocturnal New York,” taking as her cue the image of an envelope addressed to “Mr M Beckmann New York usa” located at the lower left of the canvas. It’s a reasonable supposition given the painting’s kaleidoscopic jumble and clash of cultural references. Beckmann was a devotee of New York nightlife—the clubs, dives, and stage shows in which “vulgarity reigned.” It’s an appropriately noisy picture, but not one of Beckmann’s finest efforts. The composition doesn’t quite hold true; it heaves and stutters, and the juxtapositions in scale are clunky and cramped. Over the top by even the standards of a sturdy fabulist, The Town (City Night) is a mish-mosh of demons, troubadours, commissars, phallic symbols, and, in dead center, a bound female nude. Sometimes splendid excess is less than splendid.
Among the most striking aspects of Beckmann’s vision is that, notwithstanding his meditations on human folly and vice, it never descends into nihilism or despair. The paintings bristle and bump with appetite—for life’s absurdities, absolutely, but primarily for life itself. It’s worth mentioning that a number of Beckmann pictures concern themselves with everyday epiphanies—the ocean as seen from a hotel terrace; the forest surrounding a university town; an untended corner of the studio; and his beloved Quappi, whose handsome countenance appears repeatedly in the oeuvre. The center panel of Departure has famously—and rightfully—been cited as a marker of Beckmann’s holistic worldview. Blue skies and family, the painting would seem to suggest, sustain us in the midst of history’s cruelest turns. It’s no surprise that Beckmann disliked being lumped in with the Expressionists: self-pity and narcissism were antithetical to the “fullness, roundness, and the vitally pulsing” to which he aspired. The stern and heady embrace of “essential things” is palpable throughout “Max Beckmann in New York,” and is but one reason we should look to this demanding artist as a guidepost in our troubled times.
1 “Max Beckmann in New York” opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on October 19, 2016 and remains on view through February 20, 2017.