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Beckmann's Balance Board

As early as 1909, Max Beckmann was regarded as one of Germany’s most promising young artists. After graduating from the Kunstschule in Weimar, Beckmann began his career working in a style of history painting that was rigorously academic in comparison to many of his Fauvist and Cubist contemporaries. However, following the end of the First World War, Beckmann left much of his academic training behind to pursue new paintings imbued with a graphic flatness and a warped sense of space.[i] Throughout this transition toward a more avant-garde aesthetic, Beckmann resisted pure abstraction, remaining uniquely grounded in capturing the world of objects within his canvases.

Due to his commitment to representation Beckmann was, and still is, deemed an “unflagging picture maker” among a throng of artists tending toward the abstract call of an increasingly modern art world.[ii] In addition, Beckmann has been hailed for the role he played as the “moral commentator” and chronicler of his time, especially as the necessity for such a figure grew during the rise of the National Socialism and The Third Reich.[iii]  During this chaotic period, his idiosyncratic pictures aimed to document and make sense of the full range of the world around him, from the whimsy of the circus to the sinister darkness of bondage, sacrifice, and torture, at the hands of violent oppression.

Among the numerous achievements that solidify Beckmann’s role in the canon of art history, Klaus Lankheit highlights a central element of the artist’s late studio practice, describing him as a maker of characteristically “unstable space[s].”[iv] Visually prominent in a number of the works catalogued in this exhibition, this instability plays an immense role in the creation of the uncanny power his works exude. In many of Beckmann’s works, the compositions are riddled with objects and characters that defy gravity to stand upright, many of which feel as if they may fall out of the picture plane all together.[v] In addition, Beckmann imbues compositions such as The Acrobats (Cat. 1) with an odd perspective in which subjects appear to be precariously balanced on top of each other rather than situated behind one another in retreating space. However, the creation of unstable-looking images through the visual strategies of shallow pictorial space and an awkward stacked perspective, constitute only one of the ways Beckmann builds his fragile and unstable universe.

In addition to these clever formal devices, Beckmann utilizes a number of methods deeply buried within the conception of his images to create his signature sense of tumult. Beckmann’s The Acrobats highlights the manner in which he destabilizes his images and contemporary notions of time and identity through conflating the modern world with the fictional realm of the stage. Portrait of Valentine Tessier (Cat. 2), an abstracted representation of a famous French actress,underscores his use of a fluid balance of abstraction and representation to bolster the instability present in his paintings. Furthermore, Artists with Vegetables (Cat. 3) stands as an example of the instability provided by Beckmann’s ambivalent worldview, characterizing life as an ambiguous and incongruent mixture of utopia and dystopia. In particular, this work demonstrates his desire to actualize a form of utopia similar to those of his contemporaries and predecessors like Matisse and the first generation of Expressionists, while simultaneously looking skeptically at the possibility of achieving this goal. These paintings, bolstered within this exhibition by Beckmann’s Paris Society, The Actors, Carnival Mask, Film Studio, Falling Man, and Sunrise, exhibit the various strategies Beckmann employed to destabilize his work.

[i] Christian Lenz. "Beckmann, Max." Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 5, 2015, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T007231.

[ii] Charles S. Kessler, Max Beckmann’s Triptychs (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), 1.

[iii] Kessler, Max Beckmann’s Triptychs, 6; Haxthausen characterizes Beckmann similarly here: “In 1912…to them,” Charles W. Haxthausen, "A Poetics of Space: Beckmann's Falling Man," Max Beckmann ed. Sean Rainbird (New York: Museum of Modern Art : [Distributed in the United States and Canada by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers], 2003), 250.

[iv] Kessler, Max Beckmann’s Triptychs, 6.  

[v] Max Beckmann, Carnival Mask, oil on canvas, 1950.


Calvin Miceli-Nelson