Max Beckmann (1884-1950) interrupted his painting career to serve in Germany’s army field medical corps during World War I. When he returned, he abandoned the classical style of painting typical of his pre-war works in favor of a more expressive style.
The new style solidified his reputation, and catapulted him to fame. A New York exhibition of his work was organized in 1926, and retrospective exhibitions were held in Mannheim, Basel and Zurich during 1928-1930. Considered one of Germany’s most famous painters, Beckmann was recognized by the government with a plum teaching position in Frankfurt.
How quickly times can change.
When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he comissioned construction of a Munich museum to showcase “ideal art.” Concurrently, the National Socialists organized “Schandausstellungen”, or exhibitions of shame, to vilify modern art, including abstraction, Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism – in all cases, these damning shows included Max Beckmann paintings.
In 1937, Hitler ordered creation of two exhibitions:
- the “Great Germany Art Exhibition”, showcasing this “ideal” artwork which was largely selected by the Fuhrer himself, and
- the “Degenerate Art Show”, in which some of 20,000 confiscated works of modern art were displayed to show their toxic influences on Germany culture (learn more about modern art in Nazi Germany).
590 paintings by Beckmann were confiscated from German museums in the National Socialists’ purge of degenerate art; ten were featured in the Degenerate Art Show itself. After being fired from his teaching post and hearing of plans to imprison and sterilize modern artists, Max Beckmann and his wife fled in exile to the Netherlands.
During this Amsterdam tenure (1937-1947), he painted five triptychs, the most significant of which is Blind Man’s Buff. This three paneled format, used often in medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, has overt religious associations.
One of Beckmann’s most famous paintings, this triptych is a raucous cabaret scene in which participants pursue a variety of sensual pleasures, including music-making. On each side panel is a prominent kneeling figure. Each is turned away from the background mayhem while occupying the foreground position of honor traditionally accorded the donor of the altarpiece.
Both the kneeling woman and man grasp a candle – a symbol of truth and wisdom – but neither sees it: he is blindfolded, while she is blinded by attention from the fawning men around her.
Truth and wisdom are present but unnoticed.
Although Beckmann rarely delved into the meaning of his work, he did refer to the figures in the center panel as “gods” and the beast-headed man as the “minotaur.” Note the clock in the lower right of the central panel – it has neither a “XII” nor a “I”. Time lacks either a beginning or an end here. I speculate that Beckmann is suggesting that many human activites – including oblivion to chaos and relentless pursuit of pleasure – are forever timeless.
Do you agree with this interpretation? Don’t be shy on me – please weigh in!
Read about other famous paintings by Max Beckmann here.