A Review of Beckmann, by Reinhard Spieler

Max Beckmann, 'Self-Portrait: Olive and Brown', at the Detroit Institute of Art.

Max Beckmann, ‘Self-Portrait: Olive and Brown’, at the Detroit Institute of Art.

On one of my recent trips to the Detroit Institute of Art, I happened to notice a self-portrait by German painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950), which I must have seen before but had never really noticed.  Though not a work that was technically awe-inspiring, it had something in it’s style that reached me, so when I went to the gift shop, I decided to pick up a copy of the Taschen publication about Beckmann by Reinhard Spieler, simply titled Beckmann.  As is always the case with Taschen publications, the book contains a number of beautiful, high-gloss photos, among them a number of Beckmann’s finest works, many of which are triptychs and self-portraits.  Spieler sets his work apart from other Taschen collections by focusing on analysis, which though present in other Taschen collections, is not usually featured as prominently as it is in Spieler’s work.  The biographical information, though sufficient, is a little sparse, but overall the book serves as an excellent introduction to Beckmann’s work.



Max Beckmann: 'The Letter'.

Max Beckmann: ‘The Letter’.

Early in his career, Beckmann was often lumped in with Expressionist painters.  This was problematic as it is difficult to pin down a work as ‘Expressionist’.  The visual nature of paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and Edvard Munch was as drastically different as Jackson Pollock from Egon Schiele.  And even if one were to make comparisons between Munch and Schiele or Kandinsky and Pollock, there would be little in common within these pairings.  Yet many avant-garde and modern artists in the early 20th century were lumped together as Expressionists.  Beckmann, though, rejected the classifications (as artists tend to do with all categories) and instead identified as an example of ‘New Objectivity’.  Expressionism, which called attention to how a painting was created, rather than what was in the painting, stood in sharp contrast to New Objectivity.  Beckmann, as Spieler notes, relied heavily on mythic, Christian and cultural iconography to weave together ideas and themes and give viewers/readers an entry point into the conversation he was trying to generate.  Expressionists, or more specifically Abstract Expressionists, like Kandinsky, Pollock, and Mark Rothko (all of whom painted in drastically different styles), rejected objective iconography in that there were no recognizable forms in their paintings (though colour is associated with iconographic themes as well).  Beckmann’s work, though, embraces objective pieces of iconography, pieces of the real world that the viewer/reader might interact with.  For Beckmann, there is an emphasis on how the work functioned, rather than how the artist functioned, with a focus on the “practical engagement of the world” (Wiki).  This does not preclude expressive elements in works that embrace New Objectivity, but there is a focus on the ‘object’ over technique, though the two, far from being mutually exclusive, are mutually inclusive for the likes of Beckmann.


Max Beckmann: "Landscape Near Frankfurt Main".

Max Beckmann: “Landscape Near Frankfurt Main”.

The inclusion of expressive elements along with objective pieces of iconography can be seen in works such as Landschaft bei Frankfurtam Main (translated to Landscape Near Frankfurt Main).  The piece can be read as an ecocritical work.  It features, not a landscape, but a city scape.  The image displays an amalgamation of architecture and nature, with buildings and trees sharing the skyline, and gardens and pavement sharing patches of ground.  One garden, though, appears entirely brown, suggesting that the earth is not producing.  Spieler notes the factory in the background, and also how the figures in the painting seem displaced and are “treated individually” (66).  The individuality is the result of barriers.  One garden is separated from another by a street and a fence.  The trees are separated by houses and factories.  The sky is being polluted with smoke from a factory.  The trees are dropping leaves.  The natural elements seem to be lacking, or dying.  Perhaps this is a fall scene, which is likely, but Germany had identified nature as a crucial element of German identity, as is demonstrated by the environmental legislation that the Nazis put in place.  Here, the industrial element has usurped the landscape and is juxtaposed with the wilting natural world, a juxtaposition with causes the viewer/reader to link the two.  These are the pieces of objective iconography, but Beckmann also includes expressive elements.  Such cityscapes often make use of the vanishing point and straight lines. The buildings in cityscapes often shoot up, straight and firm like an erect phallus.  In this painting, though, there is no consistent vanishing point, and the buildings are crooked, or leaning, and are uneven.  This suggests that the human constructs, or industrialization, has warped our perspective of the world, along with poisoning the environment.  This painting is a perfect demonstration of how Beckmann manages to combine objective pieces of iconography (a tree, a garden, a factory), with expressive elements (lack of vanishing points, warps skylines) to invite the viewer/reader to enter into a conversation.


Max Beckmann: "Woman With Mandolin In Yellow and Red".

Max Beckmann: “Woman With Mandolin In Yellow and Red”.

Beckmann made steady headway as an artist and by his 50th birthday: he had been established as an artist, and teacher, and had a healthy contract with a dealer.  But then the Nazis came.  Evil, heartless, art-hating Nazis!  In the book, Spieler includes a frightening aspect of Nazi mentalities regarding modernist art: “there are only two possibilities… either these so-called ‘artists’ really do see things this way… in which case it would be simply a question of clarifying… their defective visions… Or these people… have quite different reasons for oppressing the nation with such humbug, in which case such activity falls within the remit of criminal investigation” (123).  Hitler said that!  Yikes!  No wonder he was rejected by art school: he had such limited vision!  Critics today might simply dismiss an artist’s work, or renounce it, but Hitler wanted to put artists in jail if he didn’t like their work.  As a result of Nazi policy, Beckmann lost his teaching position, could not exhibit his work, and therefore had no real means of supporting himself.  It was at this time that Beckmann decided he’d move to Amsterdam, and the works he still had in his possession had to be shipped carefully so that they weren’t confiscated and destroyed.  It also marked the first time he painted a triptych.


Max Beckman: 'Departure'.

Max Beckman: ‘Departure‘.

Though Beckmann’s work had not been overtly political leading up to the rise of the Nazi party, it had become so through no choice of his own.  Beckmann responded with a form that was new to him: the triptych.  The first of the triptychs was titled Departure, a title that had multiple meanings.  It was a departure in style for Beckmann, or at least in approach, and it was a departure perhaps in content as well, or at the very least the context of content.  It could also be seen as a foreshadowing of Beckmann’s eventual physical departure from Germany.  The triptych was of course a popular form in medieval painting, and was employed by artists like Hieronymus Bosch.  For work from the Middle Ages, perspective was often flat, and though Beckmann’s work has more perspective and depth, he certainly seems to embrace the flat perspective common in medieval paintings.  Other triptychs would follow: Temptation, Perseus, The Actors, and Carnival, among others.  Each was a series of three paintings that were meant to be hung side by each in a specific order, and when one patron offered to buy a single panel, Beckmann refused, stating that all three must be hung together because, as Spieler notes, the “Discontinuity and contradiction between the panels are the guiding principles” of the work (106).  In the case of Departure, the center panel was considered by Beckmann to be the end of the tragedy told in the three panels.  Such wording is curious though, as it begs the question: is the center panel merely the end of a tragic narrative?  Or is does it mark the end of tragedy and a new trajectory into a more utopian era?


Max Beckmann: 'Temptation'.

Max Beckmann: ‘Temptation‘.

Spieler’s analysis of the triptych, especially in the context of the era in which Beckmann was painting, is especially insightful.  In Departure he notes that the left panel, displays several acts of torture, with one man’s hands being chopped off, and a woman tied into a pose suggestive of either a forthcoming rape, one that has already happened, or perhaps both.  There is a figure, who Spieler notes appears as if he were lifting an ax, ready to continue the torture.  It is not actually an axe in his hand, though, but rather, it is a “harmless fish creel” (106).  There are fish and fruits in the painting, but no sustenance is provided to the victims of torture.  The fisherman, though, makes no effort to assist the victims, and so demonstrates the ambivalence of the fisherman, while the absence of the torturer articulates “the anonymity of the violence” of the Kafkaesque “ever-present and insurmountable consequences of an all-powerful institution” like that established by the Nazis (106).  It is not through the brute force of the militant arm that despotic regimes like the Nazis express their power, but through the ambivalence of the general population who watch as others lose their rights through legislation like the Nuremberg Laws.  This painting calls to mind Martin Niemöller poem ‘First They Came…’.  Such sentiments are reinforced through Spieler’s reading of Temptation, another triptych that features torture, this one with an indifferent bell hop who is walking a woman around like a dog whilst carrying the crown of a despot on a tray.  The absolute rule, represented by the iconographic image of a crown, can easily be linked with the despotism of the Nazi regime, while the indifference of the bell hop, who has moved from the willful blindness of the fisherman to active participation, demonstrates how an oppressive regime like the Nazi’s comes into power.


Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait as Medical Orderly

Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait as Medical Orderly

Despite the potency of his triptychs, it is perhaps his self-portraits that Beckmann is most famous for.  Individually, the portraits don’t offer much.  In their individual historical context, though, or when placed in the context of all of Beckmann’s self-portraits, they take on new meaning.  Self-Portrait In Tuxedo, for instance, seems quite mundane, but in the context of depression era Germany, the painting was seen as offensive to some.  As a country in the throes of depression, the painting seemed to align the artist with the bourgeoisie when many were starving.   When placed in the context of Beckmann’s oeuvre, the painting is just one of many that demonstrates how our identity shifts from year to year, from day to day, and even from moment to moment.  Self-Portrait as Medical Orderly, for instance, suggests that Beckmann is a servant on the surface, but it also outlines that Beckmann would rather help the wounded in the war effort, than create the wounded, given that working as a medical orderly was what he chose to do in the service of his country during WWI.  Each painting frames Beckmann in a different social context, demonstrating how identity is not static, but rather, is an ever-shifting thing that is defined as much by social context as by personal choices.


Max Beckmann: "Quappie In Blue In Boat'.

Max Beckmann: “Quappie In Blue In Boat’.

As a critical work, Spieler’s monograph serves as a great introduction to Beckmann’s oeuvre, but as a biographical work, it is a little lacking.  Spieler does offer broad strokes as to what was going on in Beckmann’s life, but when coming upon Beckmann’s time in Nazi Germany, one longs for detail.  Beckmann, like many Germans, was not a supporter of the Nazi party, and while Germans are often vilified as passive participants, it is clear when looking at Beckmann’s work that this was not the case with all Germans.  How did such Germans communicate with each other?  What did they have to endure socially for their unorthodoxy?  What were their views on anti-Semitism?  Or the Nazi policies of the Gypsies, and developmentally delayed persons?  How did Nazi legislation impact their lives?  In Spieler’s defence, it would have been hard to delve into this and still offer a critical reading or Beckmann’s work, especially in less than 200 pages, most of which are taken up by images of Beckmann’s work.  This period, as well, was also a relatively short one in Beckmann’s life: about 10 years of a career that spanned nearly 50 years.  It is hard to balance critical readings with biographical specifics, and though Spieler’s book does leave one longing from more biographical details, it does manage to perform its task in introducing the reader to Beckmann’s work framing it in a biographical context.  What is almost utterly lacking, and which I am utterly grateful for, is a dull cataloging of Beckmann’s sales.  I have read books about other artists, such as Monet and Magritte, that go into excessive detail about what the painters sold and how much they got, which simply does not interest me and I thank Spieler for saving me from reading through such drivel.  That said, I’m sure there are academics who take an interest in such things.


Die Nacht (The Night)

Die Nacht (The Night)

Overall, Spieler’s Beckmann is a collection well worth reading.  I’ve focused here on the triptychs, but Spieler offers some insightful interpretations on other paintings from early in Beckmann’s career, such as his famous painting Die Nacht (translated as The Night), or works like Das Bad (The Bath) and Deposition.  The book also offers a brief chronology of key events in Beckmann’s life, but the collection is curiously lacking an index of the paintings included in the collection.  In most instances, I have notices that Taschen includes an index of the paintings featured in a given collections, usually listed alphabetically with a page number beside each title (though the collection about Monet, the index listed the paintings in order of appearance, which frankly wasn’t very useful).  This collection, though, has no index at all!  I’m not sure what the purpose of this is, but the book would be well served if it had an alphabetical index of the paintings featured.  This aside, the work is enjoyable.  The analysis offered by Spieler is for the most part insightful (though there are a few instances where I’m not sure I can see where he’s drawing his conclusions), and the biographical information serves to contextualize Beckmann’s work, while the reproductions of Beckmann’s art is beautifully done.  The book would make a fine addition to any art-lover’s collection.


If you are a fan of art, be sure to check out my analysis of artists such as Hughie Lee-Smith, Mel Ramos, Andrew Verhoeckx, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh and Norman Rockwell, and check out my reviews on books about Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, Andrew Wyeth, and Rene Magritte.  To get updates on my latest posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.


And now I leave you with a few more paintings from Max Beckmann:


Semi-Nude With Cat

Semi-Nude With Cat





Studio (Olympia)

Studio (Olympia)



Self-Portrait In Tuxedo

Self-Portrait In Tuxedo

Works Cited:

Spieler, Reinhard. Beckmann.  Taschen.  Los Angeles, California.  1995.  Print.


Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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