at The Tate Modern
Review by Mark Beesley, May 2003
Modern recently showed a major exhibition devoted to the work of
Max Beckmann. He is one of Germany's leading 20th century artists,
but you should not expect to come away from a Beckmann show feeling
uplifted: he was not a happy bunny! German Expressionism doesn't
come more bleak than this.
in 1884, Beckmann made his name in Berlin with a huge canvas on
the topical theme - The Sinking of the Titanic, in 1912. Early influences
were Cézanne and Edvard Munch, but his work only took on
its characteristic intensity after his experiences as a medical
orderly in WWI led to a nervous breakdown. A number of works on
biblical themes followed, which use Christian iconography to convey
the cruelties and suffering of mankind, and brings to mind the work
of early Renaissance German artists like Grunewald who Beckmann
admired (see 'Deposition', right). These
were followed by a series of paintings which use the theatre as
a metaphor of life. Clowns and performers and masked figures inhabit
a claustrophobic world of distorted perspectives, surrounded by
trumpets, candles amd mirrors, a disturbing world of symbolism,
some of it personal, some of it universal (see 'Carnival', right).
of cityscapes painted in the 1920s are among Beckmann's most accessible
and optimistic works. With their bird's eye views and odd perspectives,
they have a deliberately naive quality and are related to the detached,
realistic type of painting that superceded expressionism in Germany,
and elseshere, at this time.
'theatre of life' recurs as a motif throughout Beckmann's career.
The muted of early works like Carnival give way to flat areas of
strong colour enclosed by thick, angular black outlines. Scenes
of torture and disaster abound, sometimes combined with more optimistic
images about hope and renewal, as in Departure of 1935. This work
seems to predict changes in Beckmann's own life.
the 1930s he was a successful and well-known artist, but in 1933,
the year Hitler seized power, the National Gallery in Berlin was
forced to remove a group of his paintings and he was dismissed from
his teaching post. In 1937 he was included in the infamous exhibition
of 'Degradable Art' organised by the Nazis. Beckmann left Berlin
for exile in Amsterdam. His work of this period reveals his lack
of confidence and growing isolation. On a positive note, he was
given pride of place in a show of 20th century German art in London
in 1938, intended as a riposte to the 'Degradable Art' show.
soon as he was able, after the end of WWII, Beckmann emigrated to
America where a new, very successful phase of his career began,
only to be cut short three years later by his death. He suffered
a heart attack while walking through Central Park to the Metropolitan
Museum where a recent self-portrait was on show. I can think of
worse ways to go...
Beckmann' at the Tate Modern ended 5th May, 2003.
information and images from the Tate Modern website: www.tate.org.uk