Today I am exploring the unusual world of Expressionism, to be more precise, German Expressionism, and will be looking at a painting entitled The Night by the German artist Max Beckmann, who was one of the most important German painters of the 20th century. Beckmann has always been compartmentalised as an Expressionist painter but he himself, railed against that tag.
Expressionism materialized in different artistic circles across Europe but its zenith was the period between 1905 and 1920. Expressionism as a general term refers to art in which the image of reality is more or less heavily distorted in formand colour in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas about it. In expressionist art the colours used were often strong and highly intense and often non-naturalistic. The brushwork is typically free and paint application tends to be generous and highly textured. Expressionist art inclined to be poignant and sometimes had mystical qualities. It would often look at themes of belonging and alienation. In some ways Expressionism was the art of unrest and the search for truth. The German Expressionists were loosely gathered in two groups. One was called Die Brücke (The Bridge) and the other was Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). There are numerous well known artists who could be looked upon as Expressionist artists. The ones who come to mind are Egon Schiele, Edvard Munch, Wassiliy Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Beckmann just to mention a few.
Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig in 1884, the youngest of three children. His family were of a middle-class background. His father was a grain merchant but died when Max was just ten years of age. He received a thorough education and spent several years at a boarding school. At the age of fifteen and despite family objections, he decided on an artistic career and applied to the Königliche Akademie in Dresden but failed the entrance exam. In 1900, aged sixteen years of age, his artistic studies finally began with his enrolment at the Weimar Saxon-Grand Ducal Art School for a three-year course and it was here that he learned to draw from antique statues and eventually progressed to human models. It was also at the Academy that he met fellow art student, Minna Tube, whom he married three years later. They went on to have a son, Peter. After the course ended in 1903 he went to Paris where he studied at the private Académie Colarossi, which was an alternative art institution to the government-sanctioned École des Beaux-Arts that had, in the eyes of many promising young artists at the time, become far too conservative. In 1906, he was in Florence financed by winning the German art prize, the Villa Romana Prize and it was in this Italian city he was able to study the works of the great Masters. The following year, he moved to Berlin and three years later in 1907 he participated in the Berlin Secession, which was the predominant voice of modern German painting. The term Secession, which came from the Latin secessio plebis (the revolt of the plebeians against the patricians) was the term applied to groups of artists who secede from academic bodies or associations in protest at the constraints. The three main Secessions were those of Berlin, Munich and Vienna. The Berlin Secession was founded by Berlin artists in 1898 as an alternative to the conservative state-run Association of Berlin Artists.
Beckmann’s paintings from this period are characterized by the legacy of Impressionism, with landscapes and beach scenes painted with stippled brushstrokes which evoked the play of light across shapes. He was held in such high regard by his colleagues that, in 1910, he was elected to the executive board of the Secession and was the youngest member ever to achieve such a distinction. However because he preferred painting to policy making, he resigned the following year in order to devote himself full-time to his art work. Conflict within the Berlin Secession eventually led to a further schism in 1910 and the new group called itself the Neue Secession (New Secession). In 1914 the rejection of works by some members of the Berlin Secession again led to further disagreements and several artists, including Beckmann left the Berlin Secession to found the Berlin Freie Secession (Berlin Free Secession), which existed until 1924.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Beckmann volunteered as a medical orderly and served time on the Belgium front. Before the onset of war, he, like many other Germans, rationalized the necessity of war and believed in their countries aims. He believed war could cleanse the individual and society. However, after experiencing day after day the widespread destruction and horrors of the war, he became disillusioned with the conflict and rejected the glory of military service. In 1915 the dreadfulness of what he witnessed took its toll on him and he suffered a nervous breakdown and was moved to Belgium and later Frankfurt.
Following World War I, his work changed radically in reaction to the horrors he had witnessed. Initially he focused on biblical scenes, but during the 1920s he created more contemporary allegories and painted devastatingly realistic portraits and figure paintings associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group, with whom he exhibited in 1925, but never formally joined. He now rejected traditional perspective and proportion creating taut, airless pictorial structure of space and planes with an absence of bright colour and thick brushstrokes of Expressionism. He saw the world as a tragedy of man’s inhumanity to man and saw life as a carnival of human folly. In 1925 his marriage to Minna Tube, which had slowly been unravelling, came to an end and the couple were divorced. That same year he married his second wife, Mathilde von Kaulbach and he was appointed professor at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt.
In 1933 the Nazis came to power and Beckmann was declared a “degenerate artist”. He was dismissed from his post at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut and a ban was placed on all his exhibitions. All his works in German museums were confiscated. The Nazi art policy at the time applied to everything that did not conform to Nazi goals. It was their battle against what they termed überfremdung (foreign infiltration). He moved from Frankfurt to Berlin where he believed due to its size and large population he could become more anonymous. In 1937 he moved to Amsterdam where he lived in poverty in self-imposed exile failing in his desperate attempts to obtain a visa for the US. He remained there until 1948 at which time he was finally granted a US visa. From there he and his wife moved to the USA and he took up a post at the School of Fine Arts, Washington University in St Louis. Later he moved to New York where he was given a professorship at the Art School of Brooklyn Museum.
Max Beckmann died of a heart attack whilst out walking in Manhattan, the day after Boxing Day in 1950. He was aged 66. His wife, Mathilde, died six years later.
My featured painting today entitled The Night was painted by Max Beckmann during 1918 and 1919. It is housed at the Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. This is an early example of Beckmann’s grotesque and appalling visionary paintings with its misshapen figures. Before us we have an overcrowded room in a modern city. Beckman himself said he wanted this work to be looked upon as a large modern history painting tinged with a sense of evil. Three men have invaded the room and are terrorising the occupants. The man to the left has been hung by the neck by one of the intruders while a man with a bandaged head, wearing waistcoat and tie and smoking a pipe, twists his arm. Two women can also be seen in the scene. One, in the central foreground with her back to us, possibly the man’s wife, wears red stockings and is bound to a post after having been raped. The second woman whose feet we can just make out at the top right of the painting, is held upside down by a man whose hat resembles the type worn by Lenin. To the right a blonde-haired child is about to be dragged off. Under the table we see an old phonograph, the sound from which may have been used to blot out the cries from those being tortured. Also partly under the table on the left we see a dog whose head is raised as he howls for help. This is a scene of urban hell, an unfathomable and vile scene.
In his book Max Beckmann, Stephen Lackner commented on this work saying:
“… Beckmann sees no purpose in the suffering he shows; there is no glory for anybody, no compensation, … Beckmann blames human nature as such, and there seems to be no physical escape from this overwhelming self-accusation. Victims and aggressors alike are cornered. There is no exit…”
Maybe, one should remember that 1918 was the time of the German November Revolution which resulted in the replacement of Germany’s imperial government with a republic and which unleashed tremendous savagery and terror across the country. In 1919 there followed a general strike which was brutally put down by the authorities. Maybe in some way Beckmann, in his painting, was alluding to such horrors perpetrated by mankind on mankind. I find it very hard to fathom the state of the artist’s mind when he was painting this work. Had he personally suffered so much mentally and lost all hope in humanity to depict such violence?