Patrick Legant is an independent art advisor in London for 19th and 20th Century art as well as specializing in German & Austrian Expressionism. This essay is based upon the show Max Beckmann in New York at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 19, 2016–February 20, 2017.) Subscribers to AMMpro may read the entire work. All subscriptions begin with a free month, so feel free to register to read and cancel as you see fit.
Today there appears to be yearning for turning inwards, fearing a loss of identity. There is a rise of nationalism and anger toward the outside world. Those voices are becoming louder and louder in the Western world. And it is in that light that a German artist, who died in New York in 1950 on his way to see an exhibition of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, should remind us how powerful, inspiring and important it is to be a citizen of the world.
Max Beckmann (1884-1950), one of the most significant and influential artists of the last century, a German citizen who used to live and teach in Frankfurt and Berlin, spent time in his beloved Paris and eventually escaped Nazi Germany in 1937, the day before Hitler opened the infamous exhibition of so-called “degenerate art.”
Beckmann was one of the most recognised and celebrated contemporary artists of his time—only comparable in status to Gerhard Richter today—because he could hear the voices and captured them on canvas. Beckmann as a citizen of the world could see what was going to come. He had the open mind and the ability to look beyond the horizon and recognise the signs that could suddenly be seen in Europe. He tried to warn his contemporaries and the people who “heard” him were afraid of his message. In August 1933, the gallery at the Kronprinzenpalais (National Gallery) in Berlin dedicated entirely to his art was immediately emptied and examples of his paintings were included in the “degenerate art” exhibition in Munich in 1937.
He was dismissed from his teaching post and fled to Amsterdam where he stayed in exile. Not willing to return to that Germany ever again, he continued with his wife in 1947 to the United States of America—the country of freedom, peace and democracy.
The recently opened exhibition “Max Beckmann in New York” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows a fantastic selection of paintings—all representing works that Beckmann painted in New York or which belong to New York collections. That way, the visitor is lucky to be greeted by a room filled with a range of Beckmann’s most powerful self-portraits – dating from his days in Frankfurt after World War I to his last self-portrait “Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket” that he completed in 1950 (which was exhibited at the Met and which the painter intended to see but died of an heart attack walking there). The portraits show the citizen of the world—Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Saint Louis, New York. In terms of self-portraits, he is besides Picasso, considered to be the Rembrandt of the 20th Century. Rarely has there ever been such a great survey of the artist’s self-portraits than in this show.
The journey continues in the next gallery with one of Beckmann’s most powerful works “Family Picture” from 1920. A disturbing and overwhelmingly symbolic work reflecting on the torn and horrific post-war psychological state of Germany which would also be picked up famously by artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz. The family picture is a far cry from a happy, naive depiction of an evening of family cosiness. The world seems to be out of order—are the walls collapsing, is it really a family or are they strangers who just happen to share this space? The cosy (gemütlich) German world seems upside down, the people lost, in disbelief and traumatised in a post-war Germany of 1920.
This sense of horror finds its continuation in the oil “Bird’s Hell” from 1938, completed already in Amsterdam, Beckmann’s place of exile. The work shows what was to come with the beginning of World War II in September 1939 and the dramatic, horrific and unimaginable events that grabbed the world the following six years. Beckmann foresaw all this in one of his ultimate masterpieces, the triptych belonging to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, “Departure” (1933-35). This work completes the show in all its might, scale and power in the last gallery of the exhibition. A departure to where?—to “Bird’s Hell”. It is a painting that should always stand as a reminder of what happened then—in 1933 and led to the devastation of Europe and its people.
After the war, the artist never ever wanted to return to Germany again. He had seen what nationalism could do to a country and to an entire continent. And although he is now regarded as one of the most quintessential and important German artists of the 20th Century—Beckmann considered himself an artist/citizen of the world. He had experienced and learnt from the events of the early 20th Century and captured them in his paintings which are powerful reminders to us that we have to stay alert, be open-minded and inclusive in this global world today and not return to ‘yesterday’ – but be a true Citizen of the World!