With the Metropolitan Museum of Art having just opened a show dedicated to Max Beckmann’s brief time in New York, from 1949 until his death in 1950, we turn back to the March 1951 issue of ARTnews, which included an interview that Dorothy Seckler had conducted with the German Expressionist painter about his teaching methods. (Beckmann was leading art classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School at the time.) Part of a series of articles called “Can painting be taught?,” the piece was written shortly after Beckmann died of a heart attack while walking to the Met. Seckler’s interview with Beckmann follows in full below.
“Can painting be taught?”
By Dorothy Seckler
“Art cannot be taught,” Beckmann said positively, “but,” he added, “the way to art can be taught.” The German-born and internationally famous expressionist painter, who died suddenly of a heart attack in January of this year, had also become a well known teacher since his arrival here in 1947. With Mrs. Beckmann constantly at his side acting as interpreter, the artist had, first at the Washington University in St. Louis and later at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, sufficiently overcome his language problems to inspire in his students some notably vigorous and varied work.
The first impression of Beckmann was that he was different from his self-portraits, appearing unexpectedly blond, rugged in frame and even rather mild mannered in contrast to the severity with which he had presented himself in paintings. Later acquaintance proved, however, that some of the bluntness and intensity of his portraits was indeed a striking element in his character.
“Method?” the painter shook his head. “No, I have no method. There is no recipe. What I say and direct is different for every individual student. Each one is a special case.” With typical expressionist contempt for system and rationale, Beckmann seemed to have disposed of the whole question of teaching procedure; nevertheless, he responded with ready good humor when asked to describe what actually happens in a first class-meeting. “It’s very simple,” he explained. “To one student I suggest a still-life, to another a self-portrait. I advise working from the model for some and there may be a few who are ready to begin more advanced compositions.” After an exchange in German with Mrs. Beckmann, he added, “Of course, each student must bring in examples of what he has done the first time and from this I judge.”
It is doubtful if even without the barrier of language Beckmann would have attempted to express any generalized body of ideas or elaborate any program. He was at his best, apparently, in a vis-à-vis relationship with individuals, especially if they were vigorous, prolific and, above all, hard working. Those who worked less intensively, or whose approach was either extremely abstract or extremely academic, were simply ignored. Even to favored students Beckmann spoke very little. His advice was constantly to: “work a lot . . . simplify . . . use color, lots of color . . . make the painting more personal.” Lucky was the student whose pictures elicited a “Ja, ja, good,” and unhappy the one who was dismissed with a cryptic “very amusing.” He was not a teacher to encourage the faltering beginner, but his advanced and serious students, for whom the classes were always intended, felt that the association was a profitable, inspiring one.
When Beckmann wanted to make a correction in drawing or composition, and in his classes they were about the same thing, he would often work directly over the student’s painting. Taking the largest-size brush (he hated small brushes) and dipping it alternately into dirty turpentine and black paint, he would outline a shape in sweeping rhythmic curves. A timid student he would send to “see the paintings of my friend Rousseau.”
“At the beginning,” Beckmann concluded, “Some students go with the teacher and try to paint in his manner, but later on most will develop their own way.” Asked if imitation included his own cryptic symbolism or if it were ever discussed, the artist waved the idea aside. “Certainly not. No, we do not talk of symbolism at all. I am concerned only with the architecture of the painting; the subject is absolutely personal. Where I can help is in bringing the image to the surface.” Beckmann described with his hand the vertical lattices that are so marked in the structure of his own painting. “There must be an architecture, you understand, not illusion.”
Beckmann did not feel that his students were very different from those he had taught at the Frankfort school in Germany. But as we parted Beckmann said earnestly: “My students in Brooklyn and also in St. Louis have a good spirit. There is something very vital in America.”