Max Beckmann (1884-1950) is widely acknowledged as one of Germany’s leading painters of the twentieth-century. Although Beckmann’s work has affinities with Expressionism and, in the 1920s, with Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), he remains an isolated figure in early twentieth-century German art. A figurative painter throughout his career, his engagement with modernism and his ability to adapt and innovate in his work resulted in a highly personal vision and style. This is the first major retrospective in this country since 1965 and examines his personal vision and spans his entire career.
Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1884, he studied art at the Grandducal Art School in Weimar, before moving to Berlin. In pre-war Berlin the debates around contemporary art were complex and his work is best understood within the context of the Secession movement. Beckmann had already achieved recognition by the summer of 1914 when at the age of thirty he enlisted in the medical corps of the German army, an experience that was to change his art and his life. Beckmann would always believe in the moral purpose of the artist to depict the spiritual condition of his age. His paintings after the war combine elements of German Gothic and a Cubist-derived fragmentation to establish a highly individual modern style. Initially these changes were further elaborated through an intense engagement with printmaking, the medium through which Beckmann’s work reached a wider public.
By the late 1920s Beckmann had established himself as the leading German painter of his era and was increasingly eager to establish himself in Paris, the capital of modern art. From then until the late 1930s he visited France regularly working there for periods lasting several months. He engaged artistically and competitively with French peers including Picasso, Matisse, Rouault, Léger and Braque. Political changes in Germany led to dismissal from his teaching post in Frankfurt in 1933. In direct response to the opening of the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich in July 1937 Beckmann and his wife moved to Amsterdam, where they remained in exile for the next decade. This period of Beckmann’s career was one of separation from the outside world but also the most productive of his life. In 1932 he began the first of ten triptychs in which he evolved a complex, intensely personal and mythological world. After the war Beckmann had to wait until 1947 before finally getting a visa for America. He temporarily taught at Washington University, Saint Louis, before moving to Manhattan where he died in 1950.
The exhibition brings together around 75 paintings, several sculptures and significant groups of his prints and drawings. It concentrates on three pivotal periods in Beckmann’s career, 1918-23, 1927-32 and the late 1930s into the 1940s. Throughout these periods Beckmann constantly innovated, testing his art against those he considered to be his peers, and continuously adapting his style and subject matter. This response to artistic challenges and to the historical events in Germany that profoundly affected the course of his life ensured the continuing vitality of his art. The exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see masterpieces such as Night 1918-19, Self Portrait in a Tuxedo, 1927 and his Departure triptych, 1932-33.
Following the highly successful collaboration for Matisse Picasso, Max Beckmann has been organised in association with the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Each of these three cities was important for Beckmann in the second half of his life. Having first visited Paris as an art student, he returned there as a mature artist. Like other European artists who moved to Paris from countries with their own distinctive traditions Beckmann recognised the need to test his art alongside the pictures of his greatest contemporaries in order to realise his full potential. His experience of London was briefer but in 1938, on the occasion of an exhibition in Germany of art by artists deemed ‘degenerate’, he delivered there one of the most significant lectures about his artistic credo. New York was the final American city in which he lived. It was the centre of the post-war US museum world and art market.
Centre Pompidou, Paris: Didier Ottinger
Tate Modern, London: Sean Rainbird
Museum of Modern Art, New York: Rob Storr
Centre Pompidou, Paris, 10 September 2002 – 6 January 2003
Tate Modern, London: 12 February – 5 May 2003
Museum of Modern Art, New York: 25 June – 30 September 2003
Beckmann, the catalogue for the London and New York venues of the exhibition, is published by Tate Publishing (304 pp, hb price £40, pb price £29.99, £25 at Tate shops until 5 May). Beckmann contains essays by the three selectors, Jill Lloyd and Anette Kruszynski, and shorter contributions by Susanne Bieber, Barbara C Buenger, Charles W Haxthausen and Nina Peter. Leon Golub, Ellsworth Kelly and William Kentridge have also contributed essays about their encounters and engagement with Max Beckmann.
To book exhibition tickets visit Tate’s secure bookings system at Tate Online: www.tate.org.uk/tickets or call Tate on 020 7887 8888.