PRINT April 1963

The Graphic Art of Max Beckmann

MAX BECKMANN DIED IN 1950. It was not until twelve years after his death that someone had the splendid idea of assembling and exhibiting his complete graphic output. From this show, Beckmann now emerges as one of the major printmakers of Western art.

The catalog which the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe has published (Klaus Gallwitz is the editor) contains no less than 305 items—etchings, lithographs and woodcuts. This a stunning oeuvre, full of gruesome humor, strong and bitter social criticism and, in the end, a timeless, almost mystical universality. Beckmann’s wide-ranging spirit, the profusion of ideas, the haunted creativity of this often misunderstood German Expressionist become apparent in his graphics. His oil paintings don’t tell the whole story.

From 1915 to 1923, when Beckmann developed his personal brand of expressionism, he chose the black-and-white medium of prints, almost to the exclusion of oil painting. Black and white had symbolic values for him; he said: “Eros and the longing for oblivion . . . All these things come to me in black and white like virtue and crime. Yes, black and white are the two elements which concern me. It is my fortune, or misfortune, that I can see neither all in black nor all in white. One vision alone would be much simpler and clearer, but then it would not exist.”

This uncomfortable polarity is responsible for the furious temper and tension of his style. The cripples and prisoners, the greedy profiteers and the poor whores who inhabit his pictorial world during the early twenties bear witness to a profound disturbance: he had to formulate the shadowy side first in order to digest the shock of the First World War, of revolution, inflation, counter-revolution, of want and uncertainty. Only in some children’s faces and in a few landscapes can we glimpse the purified complement, the glimmer of hope without which no artist can create or, indeed, live.

The black side of Beckmann’s art has given rise to many misjudgments. During his lifetime, he was often hurt when critics called him “brutal” or “barbaric”; or, later on, “degenerate.” But to be brutal one has to be incomplete. If you are gifted with any empathy you cannot really be brutal. Beckmann, despite the imposing bulk of his physical appearance, was an extremely sensitive, nervous and reticent man, well read and interested in many facets of history and civilization. The brutality of his subject matter was not something he embraced but something he fought, like Luther throwing an inkwell at his devil. The ugly blackness was necessary to bring out the almost crazy lightness, the mythological shimmer of his later visions.

Beckmann’s world was a split-level cosmos, very much in the manner of van Eyck and Grunewald. In his later years he often divided one pictorial conception into several canvases, to paint triptychs, post-Christian altarpieces. Sometimes the center canvas contains serene, luminous figures, crowned heroes or voluptuous females; the wings show humanity shackled, tortured and generally incapacitated.

In graphics, the function of the triptych can best be fulfilled by portfolios, and Beckmann has produced quite a number of such story-telling series. Very typical are the ten lithographs of 1922 which bear the collective title “Berlin Journey.” The artist leads us through nine hells of boredom, hunger and silly pleasure-seeking. Consider, for instance, the masterful composition “Nude Dance.” The cabaret stage is sharply separated from the lower-level spectators. Jaded Prussian Junkers and “nouveaux riches” sit among champagne glasses and their own unattractive wives and pay unamused attention to the display of cheap female charms on stage. The dancers fulfill their obligation without enthusiasm; they don’t even bother to submit to any unifying rhythm. And yet, these tired and misused women belong to the white side of one cosmos, whereas the superior males, with all their smugness and wealth, appear blackened and depraved.

Beggars, drunks, disappointed people make up nine of these pictures, but the tenth one lifts us out of all these shabby goings-on. It is not an angel who furnishes the upward direction in the end, it is an ordinary, soot-blackened chimney sweep. Making his narrow escape from the netherworld, all tarnished by his practical purification rites, he is surrounded by the sudden glory of an early morning over the rooftops of the city. Very clear and geometrically crystallized is the world, cleansed after the catharsis. This chimney sweep is Beckmann’s un-preachy symbol of hope.

When he did not illuminate his scenes with sun or moon, Beckmann had a preference for candlelight. The fragility of the easily extinguished flame intrigued him: Even the smallest speck of light yet negates the whole of darkness. In the woodcut “Woman with Candle,” the widened eyes still bear the abyss of night behind their extended pupils. A Kafka-esque fear of indistinct shadows still lingers in the background, with a carnivorously grinning cat and closed shutters. Yet the consolation of the candle’s radiance seems to soften the woman’s face and shoulder. There is no superfluous line in this composition; it is the most compact formulation of one brief moment. And somehow, a sudden relief, a widening atmosphere surrounds the lonely figure.

The candles are the favorite source of light and thought in many of Beckmann’s works. They appear in his triptychs, as well as in numerous etchings. He once painted two burning candles standing in front of a mirror, while another one has just fallen down and given up its flame: a melancholy and strangely animated still life. In the gruesome etching called “Totenklage (Mourning the Dead)” candles furnish the traditional wake alongside an elegant, ladylike corpse. But their funereal function is counteracted by two beastly characters making sarcastic fun of the situation. They are inventions worthy of a Bosch or a Goya. What could be funnier than the creature trumpeting through his nose? Is this the dirge which the solemn occasion requires?

I think that this 1924 etching is Beckmann’s leave-taking from one period of his life and art. The mournful, dark side has lost its accusing power and, therefore, its vitality; Beckmann did abandon social criticism with this ironic work. From now on, he considered himself excused from everyday pity and horror, dispensed from the harsh lessons of his narrow epoch. He gave up the black-and-white graphic arts for many years.

This was the time when he fell in love with the rainbow. His “terrible furor of the senses” came to grips with color as such. The earlier works were, characteristically, composed of carefully outlined and balanced areas of thin, sometimes almost transparent hues. Around 1926 he began to apply strong pastoso colors, and his paint grew thicker every year. His expressionist sign-language had developed into a powerful instrument, and he enjoyed the new freedom of moving at will through the color dimension.

Perhaps, also, his Weltanschauung had become more tolerant and more subtle, more multicolored, and his philosophy could not be accommodated any more in the strict pattern of all-or-nothing, of black-and-white. He ceased making prints for a dozen years.

In 1937, after he had left Nazi Germany, he turned again to lithography as a means of expression. In Paris he read a manuscript of mine, “Der Mensch ist kein Haustier (Man is not a domestic animal)” and found an “astonishing affinity” with his own thoughts. He was eager to illustrate this book. This was, of course, quite an honor for a young writer. Beckmann had been famous in Germany for many years, but now his art dealers had emigrated, his collectors had lost their fortunes or were intimidated by the Nazi dictatorship which decreed that Expressionism was degenerate art. We hoped that this book might again attract attention to his work outside Germany, and we made the little book as attractive as feasible under the circumstances. Beckmann signed each of the seven lithographs for 20 copies; when I asked him if writing his name 140 times did not tire him, he smiled like a tycoon signing business deals and said: “It reminds me of more prosperous days.”

The sale of the book was very disappointing. Nowadays, when a copy is located by an antiquarian or turns up at some auction, it fetches fifty times the price which we asked at that time.

Compared to his earlier graphics, these 1937 illustrations show a widening of Beckmann’s horizon—quite literally: the foaming sea, steamships and railroads, skyscrapers and virgin forests give a worldwide, adventurous flavor to the work.

In 1940 the Nazis conquered Amsterdam where Beckmann spent the war years as inconspicuously as possible, painting in an abandoned tobacco storage room. His graphic thoughts turned to exploring the secrets of the Apocalypse and of Goethe’s Faust—congenial to his secretive existence in a world of turmoil.

Once more, in 1946, there occurred one singular outburst of his creativeness in black and white. Curt Valentin, the New York art dealer, asked him to make lithographs for his American friends. It was still difficult to ship bulky oil paintings to America, but the folders “Day and Dream” arrived safely in New York and, after years of silence and neglect, proved that the 62-year-old artist had lost none of his tremendous vitality.

These last fifteen lithographs show a complete freedom, both in a technical and in a philosophical sense. Technically, the artist alternates at will between lithographic crayon, inkbrush and pen. His subject matter is taken from the early days of humanity as well as from a fleeing moment of his present life, from ancient fables and dreamlike inventions. If we look back to the constriction of his early art, to the extremely narrow field of vision which was focused sharply in time and space on Berlin during the First Postwar period, this late development has a liberating and, in the end, optimistic effect.

The last lithograph of this series, “Christ and Pilate,” is a summing-up of the black-and-white dichotomy of Beckmann’s artistic cosmos. The personal and traditional contrast between Christ and Pilate is carried to the extreme. Christ is the Gothic, elongated picture of bodily and spiritual suffering. The crown of thorns seems to overgrow the thin face, all lines are spiny and angular. Pilate, soft and yet imperious, is drawn exclusively in curves (reminding us that the Romans were the inventors of the architectural round arch). The antique world, with its aristocratic, self-centered amplitude, is juxtaposed with Gothic, abstract concentration. Finally, and perhaps unconsciously, Beckmann has united these two forces to form a higher synthesis. Worldly and spiritual aspirations, black and white, day and dream cannot exist without each other.

It should not be too difficult to duplicate the Karlsruhe retrospective in this country. There are several comprehensive collections of Beckmann prints in American museums and private collections. After all, the original purpose of graphic art is that it should be readily available.

Stephan Lackner