Max Beckmann was among the foremost painters of the modern period, known for his enigmatic allegorical compositions illustrating the trials and tribulations of the human condition. Although he began his career working in a theatrical Post-Impressionist style, Beckmann's harrowing experience as a medical orderly in World War I transformed his art into one of compressed angular arrangements, peopled with the disaffected and disenfranchised of Germany's postwar society. In biblical scenes, crowded café pictures, circus tableaux, and self-portraits, he reflected the unrelenting anxiety and alienation he perceived in modern life.
Beckmann completed more than three hundred seventy prints, the vast majority between the years 1915 and 1924. He began his prolific career with lithography. Just before the war, however, he discovered that drypoint, which enabled him to create staccato marks and scratchy textures, matched his nervous, agitated state. Working without the aid of preliminary drawings, he attacked the plates directly, often pulling proofs on his personal press before sending the plates to be editioned. Although he essentially divided his printmaking between lithography and drypoint, Beckmann also tried his hand at woodcut. He completed only nineteen but their bold contrasts, abrupt croppings, and disengaged gazes make them among his most powerful graphic statements on the theme of isolation in the modern urban environment.
Beckmann's early successes as a painter attracted some of Germany's leading publishers, including Reinhard Piper in Munich and J. B. Neumann in Berlin, who commissioned the artist's major print portfolios. The series format provided Beckmann with the perfect vehicle to explore his allegorical narratives. In Night from the portfolio Hell he portrays the violence and decadence surrounding the Berlin riots of November 1918 and the founding of the Weimar Republic. With Mannerist distortion and foreshortened perspective he depicts the horrific scene in a stagelike setting, implicating the viewer as the audience of this ugly spectacle.
Publication excerpt from Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 88