Beckmann’s experience as a medical orderly during the First World War had a profound impact on his psyche and his artistic work. He made numerous drawings of the carnage he witnessed on the Belgian Front. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1915, Beckmann found refuge in the city of Frankfurt am Main, where he worked in the studio of a friend. In Self-Portrait with Red Scarf (1917) the artist depicts his haggard face and body with powerful intensity. He portrays himself working on a canvas, exerting all his mental and physical energy and determined to survive.

Beckmann had used Biblical subject matter in some of his paintings before the war. Now he returned to it with renewed vigour, using Christian iconography as a metaphor for the cruelties and suffering of mankind. The emaciated body of Christ in Descent from the Cross (1917) is elongated and distorted in its perspective. Its sharp angular forms and washed out colours present a bleak image of Christ’s death. The style is reminiscent of late Gothic paintings such as the sixteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, which Beckmann greatly admired.