Max Beckmann


German, 1884-1950

German painter and printmaker Max Beckmann was born in 1884. By his teenage years he had already decided to become a painter, and he undertook a course of study at the Weimar Academy of Arts. Beckmann also traveled to Paris where he was exposed to Post Impressionism as well as the early development of the Fauve and Expressionist movements.  In 1904, Beckmann moved to Berlin where he was influenced by the work of Lovis Corinth and Edvard Munch. While Beckmann explored a great variety of artistic subjects over his long career, he is perhaps best known for his self-portraits. Although Beckmann refused to join any specific art movement or group, he is most frequently associated with Expressionism and New Objectivity.

Max Beckmann

Self Portrait with Red Scarf, 1917. Oil on canvas, 31-1/2 x 25-5/8 in. (80 x 60 cm). Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.

Beckmann served as a medical orderly during World War I, an experience that had a profound impact on his artistic style. He shifted away from academic realism and took up the distorted figures and chaotic compositions associated with Expressionism. Beckmann’s wartime paintings explore darker themes of cruelty and suffering in often symbolic settings. By the interwar period, the artist’s work was attracting strong critical acclaim. In 1927, Beckmann received the Honorary Empire Prize for German Art and the Gold Medal of the City of Düsseldorf. His work was the subject of a number of major exhibitions in 1928 and 1930.

The rise of the Nazis ensured a hostile reception for Beckmann’s work. In 1933, he was labeled a “degenerate” and “cultural Bolshevik” and was forced to resign from his teaching position at the Städel School of Art in Frankfurt. The Nazis confiscated hundreds of Beckmann’s paintings, and included many in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937, which aimed to discredit modern art. Beckmann fled to Amsterdam that same year, where he lived in self-imposed exile. His works of this time explore the political upheavals and resultant societal consequences to which he bore witness, including allegorical representations of Nazi brutality. It proved to be one of his most productive periods.

In 1947, Max Beckmann moved to the United States, where he worked as an art professor for three years at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and was the subject of a 1948 retrospective exhibition. In 1950, the year he died, Beckmann had a one-man show at the Venice Biennale. Beckmann’s artistic reputation has seen a meteoric rise in recent years; there have been over a dozen major exhibitions of his work since the 1990s.