Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), are three famous painters known for creating numerous self-portraits over their entire lifetimes.
Over the course of Beckmann’s life, he painted forty self-portraits, portraying himself in roles including clown, medical attendant, circus director, king and acrobat, and in garb ranging from prisoner wear to formal evening wear.
It is fitting that the earliest surviving painting by Max Beckmann is a self-portrait (left).
Born into a wealthy family in Leipzig, Beckmann became well-versed in early Renaissance painters from the Netherlands and Germany as well as famous Dutch painters of the 17th century. In 1903 he settled in Berlin, a hub for Art Nouveau and German Impressionism, and began creating murals and depicting contemporary disasters such as The Sinking of the Titanic.
In that work, lifeboats are overflowing with hordes of desperate passengers mashed together while in the distance, the Titanic remains upright. The water teems with flailing arms and legs, and dead bodies. Although Beckmann had no personal connection to the sinking of the Titanic – it is believed he painted this rendition from newspaper photographs – he clearly was influenced by grand history paintings like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the St. Louis Museum of Art, comments that in The Sinking of the Titanic,
“(Beckmann) is trying to project himself in the German art world as an ambitious, grand painter of contemporary life.”
Beckmann served in the medical corps in the trenches of Flanders during World War I, after which he suffered major depression and hallucinations. He abandoned his earlier academic, classical style of painting and adopted a more expressive style, focusing most frequently on themes of the inner self and the mysteries of life. This lifelong search for internal reality appears in many Max Beckmann paintings, like Self-Portrait with Red Scarf of 1917. His post-war anxiety and angst is palpable, even in the security of his studio.
By 1927, Max Beckmann was recognized as one of the leading German painters. The government honored him, and awarded him a prestigous teaching position in Frankfurt. Beckmann wrote an essay titled, “The Artist in the State”, which articulated his belief that artists belonged to the social elite and should be included in the leadership of the Weimar Republic.
That confidence dominates his Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, in which Beckmann’s stripped down,detail-less image fills the frame.
Color has been stripped down, too, with backlighting emphasizing his shadowy head and hand. Beckmann stares directly at the viewer in a conflicted image: is he showing his discomfort with German politics? Is he exuding arrogance or confidence? Is his stance a swagger or not?
It became clear that Hitler didn’t believe modern artists belonged in Germany, let alone in its ruling class.
After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he vowed to excise all modern art in Germany. 590 Max Beckmann paintings were confiscated from German art museums (including Self-Portrait with a Red Scarf), he was fired from his teaching post, and when the Degenerate Art Show opened in Munich, with ten Max Beckmann paintings, he and his wife fled Germany for Amsterdam.
Self-Portrait in Tuxedo was seized by the Nazis and sold abroad in 1937.
After a decade of hiding from the Nazis, Beckmann accepted a teaching post at Washington University in St. Louis, living in the United States for the rest of his life.
In the thirties and forties, Beckmann continued to shun all labels describing his work- for instance, he never considered himself a disciple of Expressionism, widespread in 1920s Germany – and continued his figurative painting which often used, like the Expressionists, bold colors and distorted shapes.
In the last twenty years of his life, Beckmann created nine triptyches, inspired by those of Hieronymus Bosch. Departure, one of the best known, is laden with allegory and symbolism echoing his early study of the Old Masters.
Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, described Departure asan allegory of the triumphal voyage of the modern spirit through and beyond the agony of the modern world.
The side panels show life as an endless misery of torture, sadism and agony. Although Beckmann claimed to be apolitical, the left panel surely references the rise of dictatorship that prompted widespread emigration from Germany. Beckmann commented about Departure:
On the right wing you can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp dragging along tied to you as part of yourself, the corpse of your memories, of your wrongs, of your failures, the murder everyone commits at some time of his life – you can never free yourself of your past, you have to carry the corpse while Life plays the drum.
The center panel, which Beckmann called The Homecoming, resolves this despair with its message of freedom. According to him, “The King and Queen have freed themselves of the tortures of life – they have overcome them… Freedom is the one thing that matters – it is the departure, the new start.”
Beckmann seldom spoke of the meaning of his paintings, believing that viewers’ interpretations would be similar to his so he didn’t need to provide a “key.” His description of Departure is rare – do you interpret it as he did? Let us know!