The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Max Beckmann in New York,” covering the Leipzig-born artist’s work from his later years in Germany, to his exile in Amsterdam, through his departure to St. Louis, and his death in New York, opens dramatically with a room full of intense self-portraits.
The show features 14 paintings Beckmann made when he was living in New York between 1949 and 1950, and 25 works from 1920 to 1948 culled from New York collections.
Beckmann’s forthright and assertive self-portraits date from his early days in Florence, to his last year in New York. Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950), which is at the center of the first room, presents the painter in an unfamiliar, if not slightly uncongenial, light. Unlike the other self-portraits in which Beckmann’s presence is strong, even overbearing, this painting shows him dressed in a loud tropical suit that hangs off his frame, looking a size too large. His bald head is still ponderous but his face stares away and is obscured rather than enhanced by an omnipresent cigarette. His hands are slender and not the powerful appendages of an artist, as he often presented them. Beckmann referred to the painting as “Penelope’s Shirt,” from the Odyssey, investing the hard work of painting with temporary power to struggle against death.
With Beckmann, it is easy, and not wrong, to perceive an avatar of European modernism. Living in Weimar Germany, a point of confluence of various avant-garde movements, the artist was put in the midst of a number of them: Expressionism (which he disavowed), Neue Sachlichkeit, and Bauhaus. Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket bookends his biography, which includes medical service in World War I, success in Weimar, a flight to Amsterdam after the Nazi regime denounced his work as “degenerate,” and, finally, the brief closing act in America, where he suffered a heart attack on his way to view the piece at the Met.
Beginning as a conservative admirer of Signorelli, El Greco, and Tintoretto, Beckmann quickly moved toward painting the tight, hectic scenes of European interwar life for which, in part, he became famous. These paintings were often populated by grotesque and damaged figures in scenes that seemed so full as to almost burst from the frame.
In Family Picture (1920), a bandaged veteran, a young boy, and four women of varying ages are joined in a close, vertical space. Despite their proximity, each figure seems solitary. It is images like this, with their unsentimental depiction of social alienation that cast Beckmann as a leader of the Neue Sachlichkeit, along with Otto Dix and George Grosz. However, as Family Picture, a number of his self-portraits, and later works, such as the triptych Departure (1932–33) and Paris Society (1925, 1931) show, Beckmann’s canvases don’t just present the viewer with a feast of social malaise, they also attest to spatial dislocation, implying how the horrors of Europe’s early-20th century distort one’s ability to see the world.
Nazism is the present absence of the show. As the title makes clear, the exhibition tilts toward Beckmann’s paintings after World War II. However, in a way, the Third Reich was a dizzying manifestation of the darkest corners of Beckmann’s oeuvre. We can glimpse his smoldering hatred for Hitler’s Germany. Bird’s Hell (1938) gives an intimation of this contempt with a dark, almost pagan carnival of torture and depravity. Beckmann’s disposition toward fascism is further revealed in his 1947 revisions to Paris Society. Most strikingly, the German cultural ambassador’s face has been transformed from that of a reveler to a quiet mourner.
In his last works, such as Falling Man (1950), which depicts a half naked figure gliding downward headfirst, and Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, Beckmann grapples with mortality, and the metaphysical questions it engenders. Almost paradoxically, Beckmann was energized by New York City. When he finally arrived there, it felt like “a prewar Berlin multiplied a hundredfold.” New York, as this show admirably reveals, gave Beckmann a new, if short, lease on life.