Review: Max Beckman: Bleak artist of war and reaction

A major retrospective of the work of the 20th Century painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950) is currently running at the Tate Modern in London. Given the exhibition’s major concern with war and violent conflict, the timing could hardly be more apt as we approach a likely bloody imperialist war in the Middle East.

Beckmann’s work springs from his terrible experiences during World War One, the political crisis of 1920s and 1930s Germany, the rise of Hitler and, finally, exile.

There is great tension and contradictions in much of his works – between, on the one hand, a bleak and fatalistic view of humanity, and, on the other hand, a view of hope and possible liberation.

The Tate exhibition starts with some of Beckmann’s pre-World War One paintings, such as The Sinking Of The Titanic (1912). Critics do not generally regard this and other early pieces as very good works of art (indeed many critics do not rate his technique at all). However the depiction of the sinking of the huge passenger liner does represent an attempt by Beckmann to depict large-scale human tragedy, to engage with the world.

The ’Great War’ had a lasting and profound effect on Beckmann. In 1915 he suffered a mental breakdown after years as a medical orderly and was discharged from the German army. In artistic terms, the harrowing experience of senseless mass death on the battlefield brought new urgency, realism and bleakness to his painting.

The Grenade (1916) and Resurrection (1918) convey the trenches with black scores in incoherent scenery. Another work, Hell (1919), is a powerful indictment of mass unemployment, poverty, corruption and societal breakdown in inter-war Germany.

Beckmann’s caustic, almost misanthropic, view also indiscriminately condemns all political forces and ideologies. One of his most disturbing paintings, In The Night (1918-1919), shows a family being tortured. The painting was made during years of revolution and counter-revolution in the short-lived Weimar Republic.

One torturer looks like a typical foot soldier of the embryonic forces of Nazism used against the working class. Another savage tormenter, however, has more than a passing resemblance to Lenin. Are we supposed to conclude from this that nascent Nazism and communism are ’twin evils’?

Paradoxically, at the same time, Beckmann found it important to record in art the murder of Rosa Luxembourg, the great revolutionary Marxist who was killed by reactionary forces after a failed workers’ uprising in 1919.

"Aristocracy of Bolshevism"

By the late 1920s, Beckmann was gaining considerable renown and success. This welcome change in circumstances was revealed in Self Portrait In Tuxedo (1927). In his ’philosophical writings’ on this painting, Beckmann says that everyone should have access to such good quality clothing. He would like to see a society where there is an "aristocracy of Bolshevism".

This extraordinary statement reveals that even when he was able to move beyond confused pessimism, and when he genuinely strove for empathy with humanity, Beckmann nevertheless projected a bourgeois and very individualistic Utopianism.

Official success for Beckmann came to an end with the rise of Hitler, which is not surprising given that the Third Reich could not countenance any portrayal of German society that honestly attempted to show it as it really was – impoverished, corrupt and violent. The Nazi ideologues deemed his work "degenerate".

It was in response to Nazi terror that Beckmann produced his first tripitch (a picture of three panels hinged vertically together), called Departure (1932-1935). The side panels depict torture and suffering, while the centre piece shows a woman and child on board a boat on a bright blue sea (although hinting at an unknown fate awaiting them).

Once war broke out, Beckmann was always under the threat of arrest by the occupying German army. His paintings are heavy with dreary mythology. By 1947, however, Beckmann and his family were able to go to the US, where he found late critical and public acclaim and painted prodigiously until his death.

The Tate exhibition reveals an artist extremely sensitive to a crucial period in German history: Beckmann could always adeptly portray the worst aspects of German capitalist society. Yet his art is highly individualistic; at times narcissistic, and lacked true world vision.

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