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Max Beckmann
at The Tate Modern
Review by Mark Beesley, May 2003

Tate 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.

Born 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).

A group 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perspectives, they have a deliberately naive quality and are related to the detached, realistic type of painting that superceded expressionism in Germany, and elseshere, at this time.

The '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.

By 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.

As 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...

'Max Beckmann' at the Tate Modern ended 5th May, 2003.

--Mark Beesley

Further information and images from the Tate Modern website: