Max Beckmann dreamed up a world of actors, cabaret singers, heroes, and thugs, whose dramas unfold on city streets, at masquerades and carnivals, and in candlelit chambers. The artist himself is often part of the action, usually costumed, but identifiable by his enormous head and scowling face. At a time when many of his German contemporaries were experimenting with abstraction, Beckmann resolutely pursued the possibilities of figuration and narrative, peppering his paintings with fragments of myths, bible stories, and opaque allegories—often interspersed with scenes and figures from his life.
After he received initial recognition for history paintings and portraits, with muted palettes, an impressionistic paint handling, and references to Old Masters like Michelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens, the course of Beckmann’s life and art shifted at the outbreak of World War I. He joined the medical corps, and at first he was energized by the turmoil of war, writing “my art can gorge itself here.” But the action soon ended for him after he had a nervous breakdown in 1915. Over the next decade, he captured the doomed Weimar Republic with acidic cynicism, creating jam-packed, riotously colored canvases populated by a cast of characters enacting the chaos of postwar urban life. He also focused on etching and lithography in these years, producing several black-and-white print portfolios, including Hell (1918–19), which features scenes of a devastated Berlin. The city’s inhabitants torture one another, clamp their eyelids shut, and dance frantically.
In the early 1930s, the National Socialist press began to attack Beckmann’s work, and in 1933, soon after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, the artist was dismissed from his teaching position at Frankfurt’s Städel Art School, and his paintings at the Berlin National Gallery were removed from view. It was in this time of mounting terror and uncertainty that Beckmann began to paint the triptych Departure (1932–35), in which he has juxtaposed restraint and freedom, compression and openness, violence and refuge. Its outer panels are consumed by scenes of torture in a dimly lit theater, while in the center panel archaic figures appear on a boat in calm seas under a clear, bright sky.
In 1937, on the day after many of his works were included in the Degenerate Art exhibition, Beckmann left for Amsterdam, where he lived during World War II. He remained active in exile, turning to mythic, parabolic images unmoored from a particular time or place. In 1947, he was able to immigrate to America, where he taught in St. Louis and New York. Sharing his own mantra with his students, he often told them, “work a lot…simplify…use lots of color…make the painting more personal.”
Introduction by Hillary Reder, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2016