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Apr 2003 Journal

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Art Notes

In the late 1920s Max Beckman (Tate Modern until 5 May 2003) was regarded as the most important figurative German artist of his generation. He did not flinch from offering compelling and disturbing insights into the human mind during the horrors of the First World War. By 1933, captivated by the modernism of Picasso, Matisse and Braque, he fell foul of the Nazis, who branded him a ‘degenerate’ and dismissed him from his teaching job at the Frankfurt School of Art. In 1937 he heard a broadcast of Hitler’s speech to the House of German Art in Munich, and the following day he left for Holland, where he spent the next ten years working on a series of triptychs that became his life’s work.

‘What I want to show in my work is the idea which hides itself behind so-called reality,’ Beckman said of his art. ‘I am seeking the bridge which leads from the visible to the invisible.’ There is nothing invisible about Beckmann’s courageous and powerful art. But his initially Christian imagery gave way to a more voyeuristic detachment, from which the spiritual message seemed, at first glance, to be hidden. His Large Death Scene and Small Death Scene paintings, inspired by his mother’s early death from cancer, move the deathbed scene to an obscure background, while the mourners themselves, isolated in a solidity of pain and disbelief, become the subject.

Beckmann’s work gradually develops an unusual blend of cynicism and empathy. You become aware of an almost pornographic interplay between physicality and the deeper, internal force that drives human existence. This is the invisibility to which he refers. His early Christian imagery is not entirely lost; indeed, it is filtered through his recurring religious symbolism of fish and water, if you like, juxtaposed with very solid carnal forms. Between 1937 and 1941,during his self-imposed Dutch exile, Beckmann looked back on his early work and, like many Expressionists, at the internal world that spiritually changed him.

As the internal world of the artist becomes ravaged by political events, so, too, does Beckmann’s style. The formal nineteenth-century treatment of his self-portrait with his first wife, where each seems to accept a separate identity, gives way to a much looser application of the paint, evident in the portraits of his second wife, Quappi, and the carnival imagery that he frequently adopts. Beckmann began to regard himself as a European rather than a German, launching himself onto the salons of Paris and New York. His later work has a power and energy freed from the constraints of formalism. The horror of fatality and violence are generated with a blunt objectivity that clearly derives from an artist working during the Nazi era. There is a recurring carnival humour, a bleak distance with which he paints, for instance, Music while Drowning. His own most vivid self-portraits hold the key; Self-Portrait in Tuxedo has Max, the successful artist, looking as complacent as a banker in 1927. His final Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, in similar stance, shows him having come to terms with his own success.
Gloria Tessler

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