In 1937, the Nazis launched a touring exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’, in which Beckmann’s work featured prominently. The day after Hitler gave a speech inaugurating the exhibition, Beckmann left Berlin for Amsterdam, never to return to his homeland. Though some friends and supporters visited him in Amsterdam and he found new acquaintances among fellow expatriates, his years in exile were a time of relative isolation. He retreated to his own inner world, developing a highly individual pictorial language and a series of reflective self-portraits.
Self-Portrait in Tails (1937) strikingly mirrors Beckmann’s new situation, especially when compared to Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, completed ten years earlier. Though he is still dressed in a formal tuxedo and facing the viewer, none of the self-confidence of the earlier portrait remains. The 1937 portrait shows an anguished figure, precariously balanced as if stepping out of the picture frame. He gazes nervously sideways, his hands hanging lifeless and limp.
A year later, however, Beckmann’s work was given pride of place at the Exhibition of 20th Century German Art at the New Burlington Galleries in London. The exhibition was conceived as a defiant response to the Degenerate Art show. Seven of Beckmann’s works were included, and at the opening he made a speech defending his belief in the right to artistic freedom.