UNIVERSUM MAX BECKMANN at Kunst Museum in The Hague

Max Beckmann is not a friendly person’. This is one of the things the German painter said of himself, and indeed, friendly is not the first thing that comes to mind when faced with the live-size photograph in the opening room of the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague.

Max Beckmann (1884-1950) cultivated this image of himself as we can see in his many self-portraits, even in the one of him as a young man shown against the backdrop of Florence we already see some arrogance. He had just won a prize allowing his to study in Florence, when he was spotted by art dealers and had just told his wife to stop painting as one painter in the family was enough.

Initially borrowing from his contemporaries like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Edvard Munch, we see him slowly developing his own style. Throughout his career he remained faithful to figuration, already arguing with Frans Marc in 1912 about the tendencies towards abstraction which – to Beckmann – was merely decoration.

With the outbreak of the Great War he volunteered as a medic, first at the east front, later in Belgium. In his letters to his wife he romanticised the war, bragging that it provided him with a lot of inspiration. However, in 1915 he had a nervous breakdown and was dismissed of his duties, now living in Frankfurt with his wife and son. During these war years he produced a lot of drawings, confronting the museum visitor with the cruelties of war.

After the war his star was rising and he was enjoying the cultural live in Frankfurt. He frequented the cinema and the nightclubs, drawing a lot of inspiration from both for works like Carnival (1921). Being the most prominent German painter, he was given his own room at the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin (part of the the Nationalgalerie), an honour no other living artist had ever been given.

But after six weeks the room was closed with the rising to power of the National Socialists party. Beckmann also lost his teaching job, moved to Berlin where he kept a low profile and waited for the tide to change. Unfortunately, the tide didn’t turn, but plummeted Beckmann into an abyss. The speech of Hitler and the ‘degenerate art’ exhibition where twelve paintings and 12 drawings of Beckmann were ridiculed, were enough reason for him not to feel safe any more. The next day he fled to Amsterdam, leaving everything behind, even his two dogs. From being the star of the German art world, his work became just a commodity to be traded for hard foreign currency.

Beckmann found a place to live and work on Rokin where circumstances forced him to stay for ten years. He only sold one single work there – the Dutch considered him to be too German – and the majority of his works were still sold in Germany. He kept in touch with his art dealers who sold his work under the counter. It was his son Peter, a doctor for the Luftwaffe, who smuggled the works like Tabarin (1937) to Germany in his ambulance.

During his Dutch years he painted about one third of his paintings and six of his nine triptychs were created here, one of which, Actors (1941-1942), can be seen at the show in the Kunstmuseum. 

Around sixty works from the 1920s-1940s are on show in the large rooms of the The Hague museum; they all deal with Beckmann’s view on space. It shows how Beckmann tries to capture the magical three dimensional world on a two dimensional canvas. He leaves the rules of perspective behind him and starts stacking his figures, as can be seen in his Rugby Players (1929) and in Sea Lions (1950). These two works also show that Beckmann remained faithful to figuration in an art world which had become increasingly abstract.

In 1947 he finally managed to move to the US and see his star rise again. Three years later, while on his way to see a recent self-portrait being exhibited in The Met, he collapsed of a heart attack and died in the streets of New York.   Wendy Fossen   17th February 2024

Universum Max Beckmann continues at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague until 20th May.