New York

Max Beckmann

Gagosian Gallery (21)

From his turn-of-the-century art-student days to his death, in 1950, Max Beckmann produced more than 80 self-portraits. How Beckmann sees himself and wants to be seen seemingly confirms the widely accepted belief that male artists are egocentric, neurotic, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with. The man who stares out from his self-created image portrays himself as both Übermensch and persecuted refugee. Sinister, unapproachable, and hardened to the core, his defenses are locked in place, substantiating Beckmann’s use of a line from Faust in his characterization of himself as a “spirit that eternally denies.” But under that protective prison-shell, his injured, imperiled, and vulnerable soul has long ago surrendered to the pain that will not cease.

Despite legion disguises—circus performer, prophet, king, urban sophisticate, artist—Beckmann, in his self-portraits, consistently narrates the conduct of one “born under Saturn,” reinforcing the prototype of the artistic personality, according to which the life of the artist has been, and continues to be, mythologized. For Peter Selz who wrote what is billed as “a major new examination” of Beckmann’s paintings, dry-point etchings, and drawings, the cult of the artist is thoroughly compelling. He deliberates the truthfulness of these self-portraits on the evidence of the major events of Beckmann’s life: a nervous breakdown after service in World War I; success as one of Germany’s leading artists until the National Socialist campaign against “degenerates”; the removal of his works from the Berlin Nationalgalerie; the loss of his professorship at the Städelschule/Kunstgewerbeschule in Frankfurt; exile to Amsterdam and, finally, to Saint Louis to teach young art students. There’s no doubt that Beckmann’s life was hard or that his relentless self-portraiture represents a quest for identity and the need to perpetuate, in his own words, “the Self, which is the greatest and obscurest [sic] secret in the world.” At face value, however, the heroicized drama of suffering and endurance also has a high camp value, which has less to do with the circumstances of a gifted German artist torn between existentialism and mysticism than with Modernism’s veneration of the artist as hero and demigod, and the perpetuation of that myth by a renowned historian.

Beckmann’s psychologically charged theatrical masks—dandy, sailor, cowboy, magician, saxophone player, and, in many instances, a fashionably stern artist sandwiched between multiple reproductions of his visage in a claustrophobic space—are amusingly similar to the current parade of artists who appear in drag, hawking their multiple personalities in the name of social critique. Then, as now, the genre of self-portraiture is acknowledged to be an investigation of identity. While contemporary style is much less certifiably “academic,” what feeds the cult of the artist today seems barely differentiable from Beckmann’s obsession with self-reproduction or Selz’s homage to the melancholic artistic genius. Truth is disguised as fiction, life is seen as a series of roles, but instead of the romantic, tormented creator, today’s vogue is for the time-honored model of the artist-hero: belligerent, bohemian, somewhat licentious and villainous but not too immoral, and above all successful. Artists’ faces are ubiquitous at the newsstand; catalogues with collateral images of the artist in the studio and the de rigueur biography at the back of the book abound. Their personas are as fervently sought after as their works are collected, selling everything from paintings to pocket T-shirts—all of which would seem to prove the adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Jan Avgikos