As a preview of Tate Modern’s Beckmann retrospective, Golub gives us a personal account of his early encounters with the work of one of Germany’s most significant artists of the 20th century.

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  • Beckmann painting the watercolour The Red Sea  on the shore of the Baltic Sea 1907

    Beckmann painting the watercolour The Red Sea  on the shore of the Baltic Sea 1907

    Max Beckman Archive, Bayerische Staatsgemldesammlungen, Munich

  • Portrait of Beckmann in the late 1920s by H. Erfurth

    Portrait of Beckmann in the late 1920s by H. Erfurth

    © Max Beckman Archive, Bayerische Staatsgemldesammlungen, Munich

  • Beckmann with the painting The Chute 1950 in his New York apartment 10 February 1950

    Beckmann with the painting The Chute 1950 in his New York apartment 10 February 1950

    © Max Beckmann Archive, Bayerische Staatsgemldesammlungen, Munich

Chicago in the 1930s was relatively isolated as far as international modern art was concerned, with exceptions such as the Arts Club and Katherine Kuh’s gallery. She was a totally independent and forceful exponent of European and other modernists. From 1938 to 1940 I attended Wright Junior College and studied German for one year. The German instructor had an avid interest in German art, and I especially remember the books she had on medieval German art. That is how I discovered late German Gothic sculpture, Depositions from the Cross, Piets – things like that with their extreme gestures and emotionality. Then in the early 1940s I studied art history at the University of Chicago, and got to know Peter Selz who was completing a thesis on German Expressionism. Although I have no specific recollection of discussions with him about Max Beckmann, I was quite aware of Beckmann’s work.

So Beckmann wasn’t the biggest item in my life, but he was definitely an item. Early on I was more interested in Jos Clemente Orozco (1883–1949) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). Guernica was exhibited at the Arts Club in 1937 – I was 15, and the experience was huge. At that time the Art Institute acquired an early Orozco portrait of Zapata. But Beckmann was a good example in that more than the other two he represented a position that was both ‘in’ and ‘out’. He was not as slippery as Picasso and not as obdurate as Orozco. He was a suave brute. He liked to picture himself as a sophisticated tough guy. I like that rough aspect and I like his wariness, his watchfulness.

The three or four legs of my interests then [1946–50] were the Art Institute, Cahier d’art, the 1930s Surrealist journal Minotaure and the Field Museum of Natural History, but Beckmann’s art played a major part in this mélange, as did the early work of German painter George Grosz (1893–1959). Their example goaded and incited me. I claim to go after the ‘real’: events and their controversial inputs and consequences, material that is hard-nosed, that takes on what is going on. I’ve called myself an expressionist, and even the most realist aspects of my work – as in my Mercenaries paintings of the 1980s – have an expressionist bias to them. Still, it’s the hardness of Beckmann’s early work – the Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] paintings – that I like. Those pictures are less ironic, less parodistic than his later work. Although Beckmann’s art may be rich in allegorical resonance, it is simultaneously full of raw images, terse abbreviations with a strong sensual immediacy. In fact, this applies throughout his career. It is vehement in early paintings such as The Night (1918–19) (and already evident in the Great Death Scene of 1906) and it is fully extended in the impacted, dislocating stresses of his triptychs of the 1930s. Beckmann affirms the physicality of the body even though he fractures it and parts gesticulate or swell convulsively – rumps, breasts, limbs – under the pressure of other bodies. Yet all this comes with a suppressed, wicked humour.

You never know with types like Beckmann whether they are playing it straight or manipulating you. I suspect that he didn’t intend these images of the bourgeois world to be seen just as grotesques. He must have been laughing, stepping back and observing the context that he was painting with a sardonic eye, and observing himself in that context with the same eye. There is a sly amusement at the whole situation. Beckmann is not a wit, but he twists things and the ironies of his work run in several directions at once. He has to have been aware of that. In reality you don’t have skinny little drummers next to big-assed women, not to mention fish all over the place, and nobody knew better than Beckmann. If you think of Bruegel and Bosch, they were also dealing with everyday grotesques, yet their images are hugely human. They are not just exaggerations; they are extraordinary personifications. As well as personifications of common foibles, of religious and political manias, they are sarcastic self-recognitions. Bruegel rode his demons and they rode him. Although the setting is very different, a similar kind of human content moves through Beckmann’s images – and similar experiences recur. Beckmann isn’t just making expressionistic distortions. He’s a gambler playing a complex game.

There is often an aspect of self-parody in Beckmann, even a clownishness. He is multifaceted, yet lumping incongruities together. He doesn’t seem so deeply invested in symbolism per se, because he was so involved in the fragmented context in which he was living, the disorder of Germany. And instead of bringing order to the situation, he kicks it around and gives it a disorder of his own. Philip Guston (1913–1980), the painter, owes him a lot. Plenty of meaning, but go figure. I can’t help but think that his symbols are telling but somehow hollow. I’m not being negative when I say that. I think Beckmann had a kind of radical self-realisation about all of this.

Years ago I bought a book of popular images from the 16th century, images in which everything is upside down, horses are riding men, children are beating their parents, fish are catching people – things like that. These prints were vastly popular because they satisfy a need to escape the pressure of the ordinary, the everyday. They let off steam. And you get that in Beckmann. He must have known stuff like that. Beckmann’s pictures do this with many more transformations, many more levels. His is also a world upside-down or downside-up. Nevertheless, like the post-medieval examples, the symbolism in Beckmann’s work is pretty crude. Yet crudeness can be power. There is a relation between his blunt painting and his blunt symbolism. They’re one and the same.

Symbolism in Beckmann’s work is pretty crude. Yet crudeness can be power. There is a relation between his blunt painting and his blunt symbolism.

Sure, there is mysticism in Beckmann’s work, but I don’t really look for that so it is hard for me to see. In any case his is a very personal mythology. In a pre-Freudian era you wouldn’t have been able to analyse him in the way that one claims to be able to do now. By contrast, take the Belgian painter James Ensor (1860–1949), who also made an impression on me. In his work you encounter petty-bourgeois scenes with skulls, masks and such all around – on a mantle, for instance. Ensor has a kind of medieval thing in so far as the skulls are real in a way they are not after the 19th century. Despite Ensor’s own sophistication, they are a throwback – direct, tangible symbols. In Ensor they are in the room with you and you had better watch out because they will chew you up. That is not true of Beckmann. In this respect Beckmann could even be described as post-Demonic. Sure Beckmann is right there giving it to you; but at the same time you and he know it is a kind of charade, as well. Ensor says, ‘This is real, you’d better believe it.’ Beckmann says, ‘Well, between you and me we know that this isn’t real but somehow it hits on the real.’ So he is not just fooling around. He’s saying that the whole fucking 20th century is up for grabs. Ensor didn’t go that far.

Addendum: In 1964 my partner, artist Nancy Spero, and I came to New York after five years in Paris and we rented an apartment on Broadway and 71st Street, popularly known as Needle Park, although in fact the area was quite bourgeois. We were on the second floor; directly above us was Beckmann’s widow, Quappi. We became friendly and visited her apartment on various occasions. There she was surrounded by Beckmann’s art, but her awareness of it never took the form of personal reminiscences. She was too dignified for that. LG.

© Tate, 2002. From the exhibition catalogue, Max Beckmann (Tate Publishing).

About Leon Golub

Leon Golub was born in 1922 in Chicago. After studying art history at the University of Chicago, and art at the Art Institute of Chicago, Golub made a name for himself with politically charged works leading the Windy City’s figurative movement of the era, contrasting with the Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art of the New York art scene. By the end of the 1950s, his paintings had been shown in New York at the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The political content of Golub’s work became increasingly relevant throughout the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, in which the artist was actively involved. Golub lived for a time in Europe, returning in 1964 to live in New York. From 1970 to 1991, he was Artist-in-Residence at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, New Jersey. His works can be found in collections across the globe, including the Whitney and the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

About Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig on 12 February 1884, the youngest of three children. Beckmann had a difficult time with conventional education, attending several schools in Braunschweig, and a boarding school from which he ran away. In 1897, he painted his first selfportrait, his interest in art developing rapidly. By 1900 he was accepted to the Groherzogliche Kunstschule in Weimar, where he studied until 1903, at which point he travelled to Paris. However, the political turmoil of the years to come prevented him from settling permanently on the Seine. In 1906 Beckmann married Minna Tube, whom he had been seeing since they met as fellow art students in 1903. The couple moved to Berlin, where Beckmann quickly earned the attention of the most influential art circles in the city. In 1910, he was elected to the board of the Berlin Secession, the most prominent voice of art in Germany. He was the youngest person to rise to this position. At this time, Beckmann’s works were still highly influenced by the Impressionists, though as the First World War approached, the religious imagery and influence of Rembrandt and Rubens became more apparent. At the beginning of the war, Beckmann served as a medical volunteer, but was discharged in 1915 after an emotional breakdown. When he resumed painting seriously in 1917, his style had changed greatly. Cubist space, intense colours and polished forms filled his work. During the rise and fall of Weimar Germany, Beckmann became seen in the upper echelon of German Modern painters. 1925 brought Beckmann a teaching position at the Kunstgewerbeschule of the Stdelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt. That same year, he divorced Tube and married Mathilde von Kaulbach. The next year he held his first solo exhibition in the United States, and until 1933 he exhibited widely and won awards throughout Germany. However, once Hitler became Chancellor that year, Nazi disdain for Modern art gained power. In the years to come, Beckmann’s works were confiscated by the Reich as ‘degenerate’. In 1937, Beckmann fled with his wife to Amsterdam, where he worked during the Second World War. In 1947 he moved to the United States, where he continued to teach and paint until his death in December 1950. Beckmann is now recognised as one of the most important German artists of his generation. His works can be found in prominent international collections throughout the world. His published writings include Self-Portrait in Words and On My Painting.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 3