Max Beckmann in Munich

A harried artist between the classical and the modern


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the summer of 1932, as Hitler’s Brownshirts roamed the streets, hunting down their racial and ideological enemies, Max Beckmann began painting the most important picture of his career. Seven feet high and ten feet across, this monumental triptych was a dramatic departure from his previous pictures, which had made him the most feted artist in Germany.

Throughout the 1920s, Max Beckmann captured the Zeitgeist of the Weimar Republic, mixing sorrow and champagne (as his art dealer, Israel Ber Neumann, put it). His dynamic, claustrophobic paintings evoked the queasy excitement of that era — its narcotic glamour, its dark eroticism, its aura of impending doom.

Now, with Hitler in the ascendant and the Weimar Republic on the brink of collapse, Beckmann embarked on a different sort of painting that was more enigmatic, more elemental. The side panels of this triptych showed archaic scenes of human cruelty. The central panel showed a king and queen in a small boat, adrift on the open sea. It felt like an illustration from some forgotten fable, something from Greek mythology or the Brothers Grimm.

What did it all mean? As Beckmann explained, the left-hand panel was about man’s inhumanity to man (“torture, pain of every kind — physical and mental”). The right-hand panel was about the agony of conscience (“the corpse of your memories, your wrongs and failures, the murder everyone commits”). 

Only the central panel held out some hope of redemption. “The king and queen have freed themselves,” he said. “Freedom is the one thing that matters. It is the departure, the new start.” When one of his patrons, Lilly von Schnitzler, offered to buy that central panel, without the side panels, he refused. “The meaning can only be understood by the three parts together,” he told her. Today, this triptych reads like a premonition, a foretelling of the Holocaust, and Beckmann’s emigration to America.

In 1932, when Max Beckmann embarked upon this artwork, he bestrode the German art world like a colossus. Within a year, his world had turned upside down. With Hitler’s assumption of to power the following year, he was traduced as a “Cultural Bolshevik” and fired from his art professorship in Frankfurt. 

He moved to Berlin, where he completed this triptych, to which he gave an English name, Departure. It’s this painting, and this title, which provides the focus for a fascinating show at Munich’s modern art museum, the Pinakothek der Moderne.

Superficially, this is an exhibition about Beckmann’s extensive travels — his earlier excursions to all the usual sunny seaside places, and his later exile in the Netherlands and the United States. There are picture postcards, holidays snaps, even home movies. The centrepiece of this show is his Louis Vuitton trunk. 

Yet despite its plethora of stunning seascapes, this is really an exhibition about departure in a deeper sense. It shows how Beckmann turned away from Germany, and the German artists of his generation. Above all, it’s an exhibition which prompts the fundamental question: how does it change a man when he’s forced to forsake his native land?

Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig in 1884, into a comfortable middle-class family. His father was a businessman. From an early age, Max knew he would become an artist. This self-belief was not misplaced. Painted in 1905, his Young Men by The Sea (one of the highlights of this exhibition) is quite possibly the most accomplished painting by a 21-year-old that I have ever seen.

The decade before the First World War, the decade in which Beckmann came of age, was a golden age of German art. Two radical new movements, Die Brücke (founded in Dresden) and Der Blaue Reiter (formed in Munich) revolutionised European painting. With his bold use of line and colour, and his interest in contemporary life, Beckmann had quite a lot in common with both these movements, but he deliberately stood apart from them. Supremely self-confident, he was never a team player.

Likewise, he always refuted being labelled as an Expressionist painter. This exhibition reveals why. In Britain we tend to think of Beckmann as a quintessentially German artist, whose work was largely confined to that turbulent period between the two World Wars. Max Beckmann — Departure presents a broader, more complex picture: an internationalist whose work straddles two continents and several centuries, reaching back to the Old Masters (Bruegel, Bosch, Rubens and Rembrandt were among his heroes) and anticipating the art of post-war Americans like Willem de Kooning.

Beckmann volunteered for the First World War and was sent to the Western Front as a medical orderly. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged (contrary to its ruthless reputation, the German army was a lot more sympathetic about shellshock than the British). Thereafter, he lived in Frankfurt. Despite the privations of the postwar years, his artistic career flourished. He was granted retrospectives in Basel and Zurich. An entire room in Berlin’s National Gallery was devoted to his work.

That all changed when Hitler became Chancellor. As well as stripping him of his professorship, and denouncing him as “degenerate,” the Nazis confiscated hundreds of his paintings, removing them from public galleries, showing some of them in their notorious exhibition of “Degenerate Art.” This infamous display, whose main aim was ridicule, opened here in Munich, a short walk from the Pinakothek. The building is still there, and it’s still a gallery (today it’s the home of Munich’s artists’ guild, the Kunstverein).

Modern Munich … remains a city full of ghosts

Modern Munich is sleek and affluent, but it remains a city full of ghosts. Around the corner from the Kunstverein is a neoclassical gallery built by Hitler’s favourite architect, Paul Troost. The Haus der Deutschen Kunst (the House of German Art) is an austere and somewhat sinister — but undoubtedly beautiful — building, which was designed to house a parallel exhibition, in stark contrast to the Degenerate Art show. 

This was the forum for the “Great German Art Show,” a display of realistic, figurative art by traditional German artists (generally merely old-fashioned rather than overtly Fascistic) of whom the Fuhrer and his acolytes approved. Hitler gave a speech on the opening night, condemning modernism and praising “Ayran” artistry. The next day, Beckmann and his wife Quappi fled to Amsterdam.

Their new home in the Netherlands was only a sanctuary for three years. In 1940 the Wehrmacht marched in, and Beckmann found himself under Nazi rule again. As a “degenerate” artist, he wasn’t allowed to sell or show his work in Germany, but by keeping his head down he managed to carry on painting (mindful that the Nazis regarded Shakespeare as a respectable “Ayran” playwright, he labelled his Departure triptych “Scenes from The Tempest” to ensure it wasn’t seized).

In 1942, New York’s Museum of Modern Art purchased this iconic triptych — remarkably, Beckmann was able to sell paintings abroad throughout the Second World War. In 1947, Beckmann finally obtained a United States visa and sailed with Quappi to America, which they’d long regarded as the Promised Land.

Beckmann was welcomed by the American art establishment, particularly by the curator Perry Rathbone at the St Louis Art Museum (which consequently now owns a large collection of Beckmann’s work, some of it on display in this exhibition). Beckmann taught at the St Louis School of Fine Arts before securing a professorship at Brooklyn Museum’s Art School. In 1949, Max and Quappi moved to a midtown apartment in Manhattan, where he established a studio. He was full of energy, and painting better than ever.

On 26 December 1950, Beckmann completed his ninth triptych, entitled Argonauts, after the mythical Greek heroes who sailed across the sea to find the Golden Fleece. Was this a reference to his own exodus, from Europe to America? As a compulsive, superlative self-portraitist, he certainly wasn’t shy about putting his own life centre stage. 

The next day, he set off for a short walk to the Metropolitan Museum, to look at one of his paintings, which was now hanging there. On the corner of 69th St and Central Park West, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 66 years old.

Departure and Argonauts are the Alpha and Omega of Beckmann’s later life, and it’s exhilarating to see them here, at the entrance and exit to this exhibition. However, while his final triptych has a profound autobiographical resonance, Beckmann denied his first triptych was directly related to the Nazis. “Departure bears no tendentious meaning,” he said. “It could well be applied to all times.” And that’s what makes it last.

Unlike a lot of German artists of his generation (George Grosz, Otto Dix), Beckmann avoided outright satire. Politicians bored him. His social critiques were subtle and oblique. He was more concerned with the big questions. What are we all doing here? What’s it all about? “Genuine art cannot be made effective through propaganda,” he argued. “Politics is an inferior concern which changes constantly with the whim of the masses.”

However, the lesson of Beckmann’s life is that, as the saying goes, you may not be interested in politics — but politics is interested in you. In 1925, in Mein Kampf, Hitler castigated modern art as “the hallucinations of lunatics and criminals.” Beckmann took no notice of those rantings. By 1933, those rantings had acquired the power to rob him of his livelihood. By 1937, they had the power to compel him to flee the country.

the art he left behind was so much stronger than satire

And yet the art he left behind was so much stronger than satire. It spoke about the intrinsic questions of human existence. In the city that drove him out of Germany, the city that mounted those twin exhibitions of Great German and Degenerate Art, there’s no doubt that Beckmann has won the battle. Today, Troost’s Haus der Deutschen Kunst is simply called the Haus der Kunst (House of Art). It’s given over to contemporary art — the sort of art Hitler would have hated.

But as I wander around the Pinakothek der Moderne’s permanent collection, a jumble of minimalism, conceptualism and all the other isms of modern art, I can’t help wondering what Max Beckmann would have made of it. Beckmann was persecuted by the Nazis as a member of the avant-garde. Today his classical paintings feel much closer to the Old Masters he admired.

Max Beckmann – Departure is at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne until 12 March

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