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 an essay by Wendy Weitman, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 88.
In the portfolio Hölle (Hell), Max Beckmann journeys, Virgil-like, through Berlin. These ten oversize lithographs present an unflinching look at social disintegration and civil violence after the catastrophe of World War I. Beckmann visited Berlin in March 1919, and depicts himself amid the misery in Hölle; his self-portrait appears in five prints and on the front cover, which, in a handwritten note, promises the viewer an entertaining spectacle.
Unlike many of his compatriots, including the disfigured veteran he encounters in the first print, Der Nachhauseweg (The way home), Beckmann came back whole. He presents a fragmented city, with bodies jutting out of the pictures' frames and figures contorted in impossible spaces. In Die Strasse (The street), a thoroughfare is bustling with daytime activity, yet no one notices the man being carried off, arms flailing, by another man. In Das Martyrium (The martyrdom), under the cover of night, communist leader Rosa Luxemburg is about to be murdered. Speeches, songs, and even last stands are futile. No place is safe: Beckmann transforms an attic into a torture chamber in Die Nacht (Night), while quiet desperation pervades his own family's home in Der Hunger (Hunger). In the final print, Die Familie (The family), Beckmann's young son, Peter, mistakes a grenade for a toy. Beckmann brings the hell of war home in these prints. His publisher, J. B. Neumann, did not sell any when he exhibited them in 1919.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.