Max Beckmann at the Museum of Modern Art, Queens, New York
By Joseph Phelan
Upon finishing Witness, the memoirs of Whittaker Chambers, the former Communist who became an enemy of Stalinism, André Malraux complimented the author: You have not come back from hell empty handed.
Visitors may want to say something similar after viewing the 133 works in the Max Beckmann retrospective currently at the Museum of Modern Art Queens. If Beckmann (1884-1950) is the German painter of the catastrophic first half of the twentieth century, he earned his title the hard way. He painted from the center of the inferno.
While Beckmann was a man of his time, he did not fit his time, either in the largeness of his artistic ambition or in the variety and complexity of his approach. As exhibition curator Robert Storr observes, Beckmann "painted the enigmas and the contradictions of the twentieth century in ways that resonate profoundly in the unsettled reality of the twenty-first century. He painted pictures about human passions and predicaments which are impossible to ignore".
Beckmann's astonishing talent for the representation of beauty was manifest early on in his Young Men by the Sea (1905). This classical composition of naked youths, deep in meditation while one plays the flute, could be a rendition of the Greek gods. With its "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" it is a brilliant expression of the Germanic vision of Classical Greece, made famous by Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Wolfgang Goethe in the late eighteenth century. The painting brought him gold and glory and a winter's study in Florence.
But it was two other German thinkers of the nineteenth century who more profoundly influenced Beckmann's thinking about the purpose of art. As an art student he read Arthur Schopenhauer, who is best known as the philosopher of pessimism. Carl Jung explained the widespread appeal of this resolutely non-academic thinker to so many nineteenth century artists:
|He was the first to speak of the suffering of the world, which visibly and glaringly surrounds us, and of confusion, passion, evil -- all those things which the [other philosophers] hardly seemed to notice and always tried to resolve into all-embracing harmony and comprehensibility. Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe.|
|[Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, 1961, p. 69]|
Schopenhauer inevitably left him open to an even greater philosophical influence: Frederic Nietzsche. Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy, caused a sensation throughout Europe by sweeping away the old formula about the Greeks of Goethe and Winckelmann. Nietzsche went about "explaining" the suffering, confusion, passion and evil of Greek tragedy for a contemporary audience. He did so by uncovering the source of the tragic world view in the clash between the "Apollonian" drive for reason, law and logical order, and the wild, instinctual, amoral forces in life which were symbolized for the Greeks by the Dionysus – the god of intoxication.
Myriads of artists in pre-World War I Europe went around calling themselves Nietszchians largely on the basis of this celebration of the Dionysian. Beckmann's concerns went deeper. He was irresistibly drawn to the tragedy of human life and looked to become a master of the large scale history painting which traditionally could capture it. When his early works like The Earthquake in Messina (1909) and The Sinking of the Titanic (1912) failed to win the approval of critics, he was baffled. He faced the problem of all history painters since the invention of the photography. How could the painter, in the cool of the study, compete with the immediacy and authenticity of the camera?
So Beckmann went in search of what only a painter could do. He found advice in several quarters. On a visit to Paris he met Edvard Munch (who illustrated an edition of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra), who encouraged the younger man to follow the fantastic style of his own famous vision of subjective horror - The Scream. On a trip to Geneva he encountered Ferdinand Hodler, who showed him how to do historical and mythological themes in firmly choreographed murals.
But it was at Colmar that he saw something truly awesome: the fantastic Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald, designed for the Hospital Order of St. Anthony. Intended to be seen daily by the sick, the altarpiece shows the demonic temptation of St. Anthony and the gruesome wounds of the crucified Christ in the most graphic detail. The expressive intensity of the work and its complex enfolding format fascinated Beckmann. He now had the technique and the template to capture human suffering in a way no photographer could... All he needed was the right contemporary subject.
Beckmann's service as a medical orderly in World War I supplied the necessary horrific subject matter. His service as a medical corpsman in the trenches of Flanders nearly drove him mad, and he was invalided out of the army in 1915, suffering from fits of hallucination and unbearable depression. As the famous Self-Portrait with Red Scarf of 1917 shows, he was ferociously concentrated, willfully intense, and deeply unhappy.
At this time Beckmann began to speak of "the infinite space" whose foreground has always got to be "filled with some rubbish or other, so as to disguise its dreadful depth." This element in his own theory of art was but a reflection of the fact that Beckmann himself was now prone to a keen feeling of total abandonment and desolation. He was in a constant struggle to overcome his own personal horror vacui. With a view to winning this struggle he decided to become a recorder of the unofficial history – the nightmare of history, so to speak - of a Europe gone mad with cruelty, ideological murder, and deprivation, as in Family Picture (1920) and in his masterpiece of the period, The Night (1918-19).
"The sole justifications of our existence as artists, superfluous and egotistic though we are, are to confront people with the image of their destiny." This is Beckmann but it also sounds like Adolf Hitler, the would-be art student rejected by the schools in Vienna who, as a result, lived within the shadow of the label "failed artist." At a later stage, this would-be artist's government held the infamous "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") show which opened in Munich on June 26, 1937. Among the 730 controversial works gathered there by the Nazi curators were ten paintings by Beckmann, including his 1917 self-portrait. There were more works by Beckmann in the show than by any other living artist.
Shortly after the exhibit opened, Beckmann left Germany for Amsterdam. He quickly painted Hell of the Birds (1938), which depicts him being flayed alive by his Nazi critics. After the war he moved to the United States to teach and paint. Like many exiles and émigrés to America, he must have felt like The Acrobat on the Trapeze who might slip at any time and become the Falling Man. Yet in The Argonauts (1950), he returns to his great themes of aspiration and ambition, tragedy and transcendence with masterful assurance and command. Here he was finally able to fulfill his greatest wish:
Really I only wanted to paint beautiful pictures.
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