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Definition: Beckmann from The Macquarie Dictionary

1884--1950, German expressionist painter.

Summary Article: Beckmann, Max
from Germany and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

One of the most important painters of the twentieth century, who fled Nazi Germany and after World War II emigrated to the United States.

His paintings were included in the infamous Nazi art exhibition “Degenerate Art.” Beckmann studied from 1900 to 1903 at the art academy in Weimar and made study trips to Paris, where he was impressed in particular by the art of Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh. In Germany, the works of Edvard Munch but also paintings by the masters Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Matthias Grünewald (the Isenheim Altarpiece) had an influence on Beckmann. He moved to Berlin in 1905 and joined the avant-garde Secession movement, which counted leading German impressionist painters such as Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth among its members. In 1906 Beckmann won the Villa-Romana-Price, which paid for a study trip to Florence. In the same year he married Minna Tube, like him a promising painter who had also trained in Weimar and became later known as an opera singer. In 1913 the famous art dealer Paul Cassirer organized the first major exhibition of Beckmann’s works in Berlin.

Beckmann volunteered for World War I in August 1914. He spent several months as a medical orderly in Belgium, producing a number of drawings and etchings that reflect his war experience on the western front. In 1915 he was released from the army after suffering a nervous breakdown. World War I constituted a decisive turning point in Beckmann’s life and exerted a major impact on his art. His style became rougher and more expressive. By the mid-1920s, he emerged as one of the leading avant-garde artists in Germany. Beckmann’s broadly realistic paintings display circus subjects, cripples, brutal violence, and suffering but also colorful social scenes and still lifes. His art betrays a complex symbolism that in part remains enigmatic to this day. Beckmann did not identify with a movement or group. Art historians debate whether his paintings relate to the Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) and expressionism. Although influences are clearly visible, Beckmann transcends such categorizations. His art is characterized by an intense reflection of his own personality, which is illustrated most strikingly by the numerous self-portraits Beckmann painted. He also produced a number of bronze sculptures.

In 1925 Beckmann divorced Minna Tube and married the much younger Mathilde (“Quappi”) von Kaulbach, who would appear in many of his paintings. From 1925 to 1933 Beckmann taught as a professor at the renowned Städel Institute in Frankfurt am Main. In 1932 he began work on the first of his nine monumental Triptychons. In the same year the National Gallery in Berlin devoted a whole room to his paintings. The Nazis, however, despised his paintings and expelled him from the Städel Institute in 1933. They regarded him as one of the leading representatives of “Degenerate Art” and included twenty-four of his paintings in the 1937 exhibition by that name. Shortly after the opening of the exhibition, Beckmann and his wife left Germany, moving to Paris and later to Amsterdam. When German troops marched into the Netherlands in 1940, Beckmann burned his diaries. During the occupation he was not harmed physically but suffered from the oppressive atmosphere, as his deeply pessimistic dark paintings from this period illustrate. In 1947 Beckmann emigrated to the United States. He taught and lectured as a guest professor at several universities in the Midwest, notably at Washington University in St. Louis, and also at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in New York. As a consequence of the Nazi purge of German art museums, many of his most famous paintings are today owned by leading art museums in the United States. His famous Self Portrait in Tuxedo (1927), exhibited in the Berlin National Gallery Beckmann Room in the Kronprinzenpalais before 1933, can be viewed today at Harvard University’s Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The St. Louis Art Museum also owns a large collection of his works.

  • Rainbird, Sean. Max Beckmann. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2003.
  • Tobias Brinkmann
    Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Adam

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