“My heart beats more for a rougher, more vulgar art… one that offers access to the terrible, the crude, the magnificent, the ordinary, the grotesque, and the banal in life. Art that can always be right there for us, in the realest things of life.” Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann was born on February 12, 1884 in Leipzig, The Kingdom of Saxony, part of the newly established German Empire. He began painting as a youth, attempting to emulate the old masters, resulting in his early work following the classic, academic style. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Beckmann enlisted as a medical orderly and his experiences as such would forever change his art. Rather than continuing to paint traditional and realistic depictions, he began to distort figures and space —a demonstration of his altered view of the world and humanity within it.
In letters home, he wrote of his experiences as a medical officer, bringing the wounded to the hospitals for treatment: “…the sick lie naked on the table, often four or five of them. … With no sign of emotion, the doctors courteously show me the most horrible wounds. The sharp smell of putrefaction was hovering over everything, despite good ventilation and well-lit rooms. I was able to take it for about an hour and a half then I had to go out into the open landscape.”
Beckmann recreated this vision in his etching: The Large Operation, (1914):
After his discharge from the military, he transformed his art to reflect the horrors of war. Even those works not explicitly about the war are informed by it. Now his works —crowded with figures and details— were all jagged lines, broken planes and angular forms. The effect was unsettling and claustrophobic.
An example of this style can be seen in Playing Children (1918) in which the figures of the children are compressed into a tight circle. Adding to the sense of menace, most of the children wield weapons and engage in a violent mock battle.
Beckmann became quite successful in the years after the war. Many of his paintings portrayed the cabaret culture of post war Germany and the decadence that arose during the time of the Weimar Republic.
However, things changed with the rise of the Nazis. Adolf Hitler disliked Modern Art to the extent that it was suppressed by the state. Beckmann was labeled a “cultural Bolshevik” and his work declared degenerate. In 1937, Beckmann left Germany for the Netherlands and never returned.
In 1948, he moved to the United States but his tenure as an American was to be short lived. Only months after obtaining a professorship at the Art School of New York’s Brooklyn Museum, he suffered a heart attack and died at the corner of 69th and Central Park West, not far from the apartment he shared with his wife.
Header image: Self Portrait in a Tuxedo; Max Beckmann