PRINT December 1984


WHY WAS THE GREAT Max Beckmann retrospective not seen in any New York museum.1 A simple, unsupported conjecture became irresistible to me as I studied the exhibition in its no-nonsense installation at the Saint Louis Art Museum: that Beckmann’s art is just too violently sincere and too fully realized not to have embarrassed those New York curators, dealers, and critics who have indiscriminately presented and oversold so much neo-Expressionist “Bad” painting recently. Beckmann’s best pictures, which shame pastiche and easy irony, blow the quotation marks right off the “Bad” in “‘Bad’ painting.” Anyone who saw the late Picassos at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last spring will have sensed the same type of threat as the one that Beckmann’s art poses to the fashion in current paintings for false, self-serving mystery. Beckmann’s mature pictures, like Picasso’s, are astonishing reminders that painting has a visceral truth to it which makes its historicity—its truth to the shared but unspoken experience of a particular time—possible. But while Picasso never really woke to the nightmare of modern history (not even in Guernica, 1937, whose topicality remains its greatest weakness), Beckmann never woke from it. The spiritual darkness of the age is an almost unremitting obsession in his work, which may be one reason he made so many of his images appear to be carved out of blackness.

In 1912, early in his career, Beckmann spoke of wanting to “fashion types out of our time, with all of its discord and lack of definition, types that could be to us today what the gods and heroes of past peoples were to them.”2 Almost 30 years later, he could still admonish a fellow artist in these terms: “A chain of developments extends over many millions of years. In these we have to personify one actor, certainly individualized, but boundlessly versatile, whose task it is to represent the actual state of existence.” His sense of his duty as an artist seems to have evolved over the decades from that of inventing representative figures with which people could identify the faceless forces bearing on their lives to that of becoming a representative human witness whose imagination and gifted hand would disgorge the unifying vision of the age that its other victims could not form for themselves.

To someone who sees Beckmann’s paintings only in reproduction, such an ambition may sound disingenuous or egomaniacal. But to examine his major paintings of the 1930s and 1940s firsthand is to be convinced by physical evidence of his sincerity and even of his success in wringing from himself visions of real landscapes, living individuals, and fantastic tableaux that have an inexplicable resonance with the tenor of 20th-century life. Part of what makes the paintings convincing is the sense that their images have been excavated as much as fabricated. What reproductions can never convey is the way layers of brushwork and imagery interpenetrate in Beckmann’s pictures in a manner that defies rational unraveling. The surfaces of pictures such as Birds’ Hell, 1937 and Begin the Beguine, 1946, are thick with labor and so layered with traces of revised decisions that the temporal order of their making is illegible. With the great companion pieces Birth, 1937, and Death, 1938, Beckmann comes as close as any modern painter has to confronting the viewer with the clash of reasoned action and an impulse-drunk unconscious. That conflict, which Beckmann tried every means of signifying in his work, may be the key to the feeling of contemporaneity his art still has despite its datedly Modernist look.

The signs of struggle are evident throughout Beckmann’s painting, and he did not always succeed in digging beyond conscious intentions to the more indeterminate sources of energy that apparently power his finest work. A series of notes on the making of a late picture titled Festival of Flowers at Nice, 1947 provides a wonderful verbal analogy to the effort recorded in the labored surfaces of his canvases:

Sat. April 26, 1947. Sketched Blumencorso on an old self-portrait. Wed. April 30, 1947. Did much work on Nice, begins to interest me. May 30, 1947. Worked intensively for 6 hours on Baccarat and Blumencorso. Sun. June 8, 1947. Intensive work on Blumencorso—morning and afternoon. Fri. June 20, 1947. Blumencorso Nice finished. Sun. June 22, 1947 . . . Painted over Blumencorso once more, good. Sat. July 5, 1947 Worked the whole day more or less successfully on Blumencorso. Sun., July 6, 1947 . . . I fooled around with Corso all morning again.—Another basic revision has come up—well, we’ll see.—Sun. July 20, 1947. Blumencorso. Fri. July 25, 1947 Very hot—painted at night until 12:00, Blumencorso again. Sat. July 26, 1947. Again Blumencorso until 7:00. Wed. July 30, 1947. Actually wasted the whole day on Blumencorso.—8 hours I think. Wed. August 6, 1947. Still—(I’m ashamed of myself): Blumencorso again—very good I think.—Sat. August 9, 1947. 4 more hours on Blumencorso—(a disgrace)—Sun. August 10, 1947 Whew—back from Blumencorso at 6 in the morning—one last night.—Mon. August 11, 1947. The pink blooming twigs in Corso.—Wed. August 13, 1947. Still at Blumencorso until the last minute before the paintings were picked up.—truly pathologically long. Sent it off still wet—well then—the devil take it. Sun. February 13, 1949. In the evening (cold studio, Totensonntag) made still more sketches of Blumencorso in Nizza.

Festival of Flowers at Nice is a picture with little overt drama, yet it is charged with an inexplicable sinister energy. It appears to be a downbeat parable of relations between the sexes—one of many in Beckmann’s oeuvre—centering on a woman and a girl who sell flowers to leering men beneath a sign pointing the way to Paris. Innocence plays no part in the scene. The men may look askance knowingly at each other and reach forward with brute mitts, but the female figures dominate the configuration and their flowers are proffered like bait.

It is Beckmann’s evocation of a world demonized by fear and violence that makes his more fantastic inventions feel still contemporary, while so many of his dignified portraits and landscapes have come to seem just moodily Modern. The best of the landscapes, such as The Harbor of Genoa, 1927, and Evening on the Terrace, Scheveningen at Sunset, 1928, seem to be darkened not by weather or time of day but by the artist’s knowledge of the world he is commemorating. Since Goya no modern painter has used black more economically and suggestively than Beckmann. Its function shifts constantly in his work. At one point in a painting it functions as a ground layer from which lighter colors pull forms into prominence, at another it serves as drawing, to mark the grain of wood, the fall of drapery, or the crease in a cheek. Elsewhere in the same picture, it may supply a gust of deep shadow, or an abyss of nighttime darkness whose emptiness takes on a metaphysical symbolism. There may be no better example of Beckmann’s control over black than Birth and Death, the masterpieces that for me form the high points of the retrospective. In these two pictures, he exploited fully the historical condition of the picture plane as a context that confers at least an air of intelligibility on the most disparate elements placed within it. It is not only their timeless themes that cause these pictures to look utterly contemporary, but Beckmann’s use of painting to mirror a world whose reality is a great shipwreck of fragmentary, contradictory semblances. The themes of birth and death not only accommodate the artist grandest ambitions, they also serve to declare a broad analogy between picture and human world. Here, as in several of his boldest works, Beckmann’s real focus seems to be the human capacity for world-making (to borrow a word from Nelson Goodman) in the double sense of ordaining a social structure and of compulsively imposing a man-made coherence on whatever happens.

Birth takes place in a circus wagon, the circus being one of Beckmann’s favorite metaphors for human life. A single large candle lights the scene, steeping the periphery of the setting in shadow. The new mother lies exhausted on a too-small bed attended by an uninvolved doctor and a nurse who holds the blood-besmirched newborn so that it faces the viewer. It bears an almost humorous resemblance to Beckmann himself. The picture is crowded with what seem like gratuitous details, the point apparently being that in a world as dependent on artifice as a circus (or a painting) is, we can never be sure how much we’re seeing of what’s really happening. What are we to make of the mirrors on either side of the picture? How literally should we take the clown (a recurring figure in Beckmann’s art) who looks on from the lower left corner? And what of the strange masklike face over the doctor’s shoulder, or the black shape at the head of the bed, which appears to be a figure ducking out of sight? Is it a figure, a shadow, or both? When I strain to discern such cloaked-in-black details in Beckmann’s canvases, I often think of Goethe’s dying words—“Mehr licht!” (More light!)—and wonder if Beckmann thought of them too.

Beckmann had the habit of turning his pictures upside down or on their sides to see their compositions with a fresh eye. This habit apparently played a key part in the making of Death, one of his greatest works, and one of the most enigmatic of all modern paintings. In it, a dead woman is laid out in a casket, surrounded by a bizarre array of figures, “real” and spectral. At the left an orderly stands behind a seated woman in street clothes who bends forward, reaching absently toward her foot as if to examine a broken shoelace. Standing over the casket is a shadowy female figure, with six feet protruding from under her skirt, who holds an extinguished candle. Further to the right, a buxom woman embraces an enormous fish. The space appears continuous, yet none of these figures marks the presence of the others, although the self-absorbed woman at the far left could be a mourner. Far more radical than the almost astral mutual isolation of the figures in the foreground is the rift between the lower and upper tiers of the painting. Directly behind and above the heads of the figures down below, Beckmann has created an inverted realm of true monstrosities that inevitably suggests the unearthly condition into which the deceased’s soul is passing. Here is where he exploited his habit of turning the canvas upside down. In formal terms, the inversion of half the image serves to acknowledge the picture as a physical object positioned in real space. But Beckmann, unlike Georg Baselitz, knew better than to make a formula of inversion. It works brilliantly here to convey the sense that different realms of being have been conflated in the same image. The upper tier can be read as a grotesque satire of the idea of heaven, as well as an ominous intuition that if anything lies beyond death it will be terrifying by its very defiance of the familiar rules of terrestrial life. Beckmann is famous for saying, “My religion is arrogance toward God, spite for God . . . . In my pictures I reproach God for everything He has done wrong.” Death is a painting done in this spirit.

The top half of Death takes the form of a stage (in an inverted image), reiterating the theatrical metaphor for life and suggesting the notion of a karmic cycle of reincarnation from which death is no release. At the center of the stage a dwarfish angel sporting an erection sounds a trumpet. At the left when the image is inverted stands a grotesque male chorus whose members have multiple faces with toothy mouths for eyes. Still more outlandish figures crowd in behind, while in the background the curtains are parted in what might be the window of a circus wagon to reveal a profound blackness which intimates the terror of the infinite. (Beckmann once spoke of painting to “protect myself from the infinity of space.”)

Countless painters today are striving to produce great pictures like Birth and Death; some are doing so with a conscious sense of competing with Beckmann. Why does so much even of the best new painting seem remote in comparison to Beckmann’s? It is probably too soon for an answer. All I can offer here is an intuition arrived at by pondering a lesser question: who are the figures that people Beckmann’s paintings in contrast to those we see in the works of, say, Enzo Cucchi, Jörg lmmendorff, Baselitz, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, or Leon Golub? All are signifiers, but while Beckmann’s people still refer to a world of flesh and blood, those of the newer painters (even Golub) descend from the world of phantoms—of images—introduced to us by the post–World War II spectacle of the mass media. Certainly there were glamour and propaganda industries in Beckmann’s time, but they had not yet perfected the technology or acquired the global reach that enable them to remake people’s sense of their own lives as real or spectral relative to their position in respect to media. Specifically, before the 1940s, art did not become grist for spectacular mediation. That is the historical fact echoed in the insubstantiality of the human images in the new painting: we cannot identify with most of them (not that we should or would wish to) because we are born of the earth, and they are born of the spectacle of world culture to which all contemporary art becomes annexed as soon as it achieves international (or, in America, national) celebrity. Beckmann’s chthonic touch makes the work seem authentically human, yet free of sentimentality and in need of no tortuous intellectual apology. Yet it is not entirely to his credit that his “characters” have a credibility the new generation’s do not. It was simply his destiny to live at a time when he could not populate his work with the disembodied figments fabricated by the spectacular media we now call our culture. Even his most allegorical images burn with the immediacy of direct witness. That is why his paintings are a touchstone of the treachery of the media: they remind us that imagination is rooted in direct experience and that the spectacle severs its roots.

Kenneth Baker is a freelance critic who works in Providence. R.I., and New York. He recently received a Manufacturers Hanover Trust Art/World Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism.



1. Organized by the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, and the Saint Louis Art Museum, the exhibition has been shown in those cities as well as in Berlin, at the Nationalgalerie and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will close February 3, 1985. A smaller exhibition of 60 paintings, graphic works, and drawings has been organized at the Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, N Y., where it is on view through January 13, 1985. While this institution is within the Greater New York area, it is psychologically, though not physically, distant from the Manhattan art-world nexus.

2. All quotes from Beckmann are taken from the excellent catalogue published in conjunction with the Saint Louis-Munich exhibition Max Beckmann—Retrospective, Carla Schulz-Hoffman and Judith C Weiss, eds., Saint Louis: The Saint Louis Art Museum and Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1984, 483 pp., 296 plates, many additional photographs and other illustrations.