Max Beckman The Night 1918–19

Max Beckman
The Night
Oil on canvas
133 x 154 cm
Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf
Photo © Walter Klein

While most of this exhibition follows a chronology, this room brings together works from the early 1920s and 1940s, two crucial periods in Beckmann’s career. The first group of paintings emerge from his experiences of the First World War. The second are overshadowed by the threat of Nazism.

Around 1920, Beckmann started using the metaphor of the theatre in which historical and personal events are played out. Clowns and performers are the protagonists on Beckmann’s stage, trumpets, candles and mirrors their props. Works such as Carnival (1920) and The Dream (1921) are imbued with Christian, mythological and theosophical symbolism, which refers to death, eternity, suffering and rebirth. Even though Beckmann’s iconographic language is at times hermetic, the mood of these paintings is unmistakable.

In The Night (1918-19), for example, Beckmann depicts the disturbing torture of a family. While it can be taken as referring to the contemporary situation, and the violent civil strife that followed the end of the war in Germany, it also expresses a universal sense of man’s inhumanity to man.

Two decades later, at the height of his career, Beckmann faced war once again. Censured by the Nazis, who considered his art transgressive and in conflict with politically prescribed aesthetics, Beckmann sought exile in Amsterdam, never to return. These years in exile were marked by a sense of isolation and anxiety, which is reflected in the paintings. The works Birth (1937) and Death (1938), for example, explore fundamental questions about human existence. In Death the pale-green corpse of a woman is surrounded by a gaggle of figures - a six-footed guardian, a repulsive, triple-headed male choir and a disfigured angel brandishing a large trumpet - in a scene of nightmarish imaginings.

The theatre of life recurs as a motif in a number of works, from both the earlier and later periods. The paintings also share a strong awareness of suffering and despair, often drawn from the artist’s personal experience. There are stylistic differences however. In contrast to the works painted around 1920, the lines in the later paintings are less rigid and angular; while the muted, washed-out colours of the early paintings give way in the later group to vibrant colours and an extended use of flat areas of black.