Curator, Starr Figura: In the early 1920s when it became clear that expressionism was not going to lead to a great transformation of society, a new style emerged known as “the new objectivity.” Portraiture, in particular, emerged as a dominant genre in this period. The portraits now are very hard-edged. They're much more detailed, and they arise out of a much more cynical attitude. Max Beckmann was one of the leading artists associated with this new approach.
In this work, we see him presenting himself as a successful businessman, and he holds a cigarette up in his hand in a gesture of defiance, and his face is very stern, so he looks like a formidable character. But if you look closely, you'll notice at the lower left—a polka dot sash, which is a little bit incongruous. And in fact, it's a reference to the costume of a clown. And Beckman often depicted himself in the costume of a clown or someone at a circus. And so this is a sly reference to that, and it injects a note of mocking or rebuking of this mask of authority.
So it's not only poking fun at himself. But it's also poking fun at any kind of self-representation, in a way. It's saying everything's a mask, everything's a joke. Don't take anything at face value.