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Max Beckmann Photo

Max Beckmann

German Painter, Printmaker, and Draftsman

Born: February 21, 1884 - Leipzig, Germany
Died: December 27, 1950 - New York, New York, USA
Movements and Styles:
New Objectivity
"My heart beats more for a rougher, commoner, more vulgar art...one that offers direct access to the terrible, the crude, the magnificent, the ordinary, the grotesque and the banal in life. An art that can always be right there for us, in the realest things of life."
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Max Beckmann Signature
"...I would meander through all the sewers of the world, through degradations and humiliations, in order to paint. I have to do this. Until the last drop every vision that exists in my being must be purged; then it will be a pleasure for me to be rid of this damned torture."
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Max Beckmann Signature
"I believe that essentially I love painting so much because it forces me to be objective. There is nothing I hate more than sentimentality. The stronger my determination grows to grasp the unutterable things of this world, the deeper and more powerful the emotion burning inside me about our existence, the tighter I try to keep my mouth shut and the harder I try to capture the terrible thrilling monster of life's vitality and to confine it, to beat it down and to strangle it with crystal clear, razor-sharp lines and planes..."
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Max Beckmann Signature
"The artist in the contemporary sense is the conscious shaper of the transcendent idea. He is at one and the same time that shaper and the vessel."
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Max Beckmann Signature
"all theory and all matters of principle in painting are hateful to me."
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Max Beckmann Signature
"What I want to show in my work is the idea that hides itself behind so-called reality. I am seeking the bridge that leads from the visible to the invisible..."
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Max Beckmann Signature

Summary of Max Beckmann

After enduring a "great injury to his soul" during World War I, Max Beckmann channeled his experience of modern life into expressive images that haunt the viewer with their intensity of emotion and symbolism. Despite his early leanings toward academicism and Expressionism, he became one of the main artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement and created scathing visual critiques of the tumultuous interwar period. In later works, Beckmann strove toward open-ended stories that juxtaposed scenes from reality, dreams, myths, and fables. Throughout his career, he firmly opposed the turn toward abstract art and maintained his desire to "get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting." Beckmann's prowess at subtly layering figures and signs, as well as color and shadow, allowed him to successfully translate his reality into mesmerizing narrative paintings throughout his prolific career.


  • Beckmann was a medical officer during World War I, an experience that instigated a drastic shift in his artistic style away from a traditional, academic technique towards a more critically engaged and expressive style of painting.
  • Beckmann deftly combined allegorical figures and images from reality in artworks rife with semiotic play that conveyed his individual interpretation of the cultural, social, and political climate throughout his career.
  • Beckmann was preoccupied by the desire for thorough self-knowledge and, in this pursuit, executed over 85 self-portraits in a variety of media. This continued refinement of self-representation underlined his firm, lifelong belief in the importance of the autonomy of artists and their visions of the world.
  • Beckmann experimented with the format of a triptych, or three-paneled painting. He translated the antiquated format, previously used only for medieval religious paintings, into the ideal support for his modern secular allegories.

Biography of Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann Photo

Max Beckmann was born and raised in Leipzig, Germany, the youngest of three children in an upper-middle-class family. His father, Carl Beckmann, was a grain merchant who passed away in 1894. His mother, Antoine Beckmann, relocated the family to Braunschweig, where Max lived with his mother and brother for the next several years. He attended a few private educational institutions, including a boarding school run by a Protestant minister from which he infamously ran away when he was ten.

Important Art by Max Beckmann

Progression of Art

Young Men by the Sea

Executed when he was only 21, Young Men by the Sea demonstrates the young artist's solid academic training and thorough visual understanding of the body. In this large canvas, he portrayed several nudes in a variety of poses across the composition, lending the work an appearance of an advanced anatomical study. The composition and subject are a tribute to the work of Post-Impressionists like Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh, whose work Beckmann had encountered while in France the year before. The illusionistic space, size of the canvas, and monumentality of the figures all tie the painting to the academic tradition. Beckmann had yet to decipher his mature, individualized style that characterizes his later works. Despite the traditional nature of the work, Beckmann was able to connect his training with his own love of the sea. He was both awed and unnerved by the infinity of the oceans, and tempered the endless space of the horizon with the profusion of classical figures in the foreground. This conventional painting was greatly admired within the academies and museums of Germany. Not only did Beckmann receive the Villa Romana prize for this work, but the Weimar museum acquired it the following year. Although he achieved success with this early style, Beckmann later moved toward a more expressive mode better suited to the dramatic subjects he wished to portray.

Oil on canvas - Schlossmuseum, Klasik Stiftung Weimar, Weimar


Small Death Scene

Painted shortly after his mother's death from cancer, Small Death Scene not only recalls the artist's own experience of grief and mourning, but also bears the influence of the psychologically-laden work of the Expressionist Edvard Munch. The loose brushwork is indebted to the Impressionists, but the painting does not record the effects of light on a particular scene as observed by the artist. Instead, Beckmann reveals an individualized rendition of a group of mourners through the juxtaposition of highly contrasting tones of red, white, and black. This choice of charged colors heightens the emotional experience represented on the canvas, a typical Expressionist device. Focusing on the grieving figures in the foreground, Beckmann portrays features such as a starkly white face or a hand with tensely outstretched fingers in order to more fully convey the pain of bereavement. This painting illustrates Beckmann's move away from the monumental, historical representations common to the academic training he received and towards the depiction of small, private moments. The collapsed space, vivid palette, and emotional figures elucidate the growing influence of the Expressionist movement, which dominated the German art scene during the early-20th century, on his work.

Oil on canvas - Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


Adam and Eve

One of the first paintings completed after his military service during World War I, Adam and Eve bears little resemblance to his prewar landscapes or large-scale narratives. The canvas is mostly devoid of color; instead, it is dominated by a variety of grays that lend the work a general tone of melancholy and create a shallow spatial dimension. The muddy tones similarly demonstrate Beckmann's shift towards moralizing images, in which every element, even the color of the paint, bears deeper meaning. The bright pop of the yellow lily and the serpent's red eye contrast sharply with the drab palette Beckmann used to portray the flat landscape and gaunt figures, drawing the viewer's eye to them immediately. These archetypes convey Beckmann's appreciation for symbolism and allegory; here, he uses the lily to allude to purity and redemption, while the fiery red of the serpent's eye emphasizes the mercurial nature of the devil. The two symbols succinctly narrate the aftermath of the fall of man, cycling through original sin to the promise of salvation.

Aside from the tonally symbolic schema of the painting, the jagged outlines, flat planes of color, and shallow space are the result of Beckmann's synthesis of a variety of sources. The brutal, twisted figures are indebted to medieval German artists like Matthias Grunewald and Hans Baldung Grien, who used similar depictions to represent pain and suffering. The appropriation of medieval styles and subject matter illustrates the Neue Sachlichkeit's drive to reinvigorate German tradition within the context of modernity. In contrast with the medieval influence, the organization of space on the canvas is clearly influenced by the compressed compositions of the Cubists, while the critical tone of the representation is tied to the social commentary of the Expressionists. Beckmann's incorporation of these varied movements resulted in the definition of a personal style and initiated the most successful period of his career. The resulting painting can be read as an allegory warning against the temptation of a reprise of the violence, cruelty, and destruction that plagued Germany during World War I. The dark outlines, disproportionate figures, and shallow space all serve to heighten this effect and later became hallmarks of Beckmann's mature style.

Oil on canvas - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie


Self Portrait in Tuxedo

Throughout the course of his career, Beckmann completed over 85 self-portraits. His continued practice of self-representation underlines the significance he placed upon the individual and the exploration of the inner self. Here, Beckmann presented the public with an image of a self-possessed artist, confident and proud of his career and ability. He easily conveyed the self-assurance of an artist at the height of his success through the casual pose, expression of indifference, and fashionable garb. Created at the pinnacle of his career in Germany, Beckmann situated himself centrally within the painting, and visually confronts the viewer head-on, staring right through him. The composition is structured by vertical and horizontal planes, as opposed the jarring diagonals of his earlier works, which adds to the air of stability and certainty of the overall work. The dominance of black and white not only add to the severity of the work, but also allude to the continued, eternal drama of the creation and recreation of the world in art. The straight lines, simplified forms, and areas of sharp contrast are typical of his work at this time and lend a harsh elegance to the painting. Beckmann illustrated his belief that artists were "of vital significance to the state" and "new priests of a new cultural center" in this self-portrait. Despite the calm conveyed by the artist's expression, the deep shadows provide the work with an air of foreboding. The contrast between the assurance of the artist and the sense of impending unrest resulted in a dynamic tension that Beckmann sought to portray within all of his work and which fueled the strength of his symbolism during the 1930s and 1940s.

Oil on canvas - Busch Reisinger Museum, Harvard University



Beckmann began painting Departure just before the Nazis came to power, and completed the work shortly after they deposed him from his teaching post in Frankfurt. Despite asserting in lectures that he was apolitical, this work reflects Beckmann's growing anxiety in face of the cruelty fostered by the rise of the Nazis. His preference for large-scale painting evolved during the 1920s and resulted in this, his first triptych. Beckmann utilized the expanded format of the divided canvas to emphasize specific moments within a larger narrative and to strengthen the impact of his tale of perseverance. Although the tripartite format originated centuries earlier during the medieval period for the purpose Christian devotional painting, Beckmann found that it was the ideal layout for his modern form of personal and social allegorical painting.

The dimly lit right panel of the triptych portrays a woman bound to an upside-down man, searching in vain for a path out of her current plight, thwarted by a drummer in front of her and a sinister bellhop at her rear. In the left panel, Beckmann represented several figures in a torture chamber with their hands bound, forced to submit to unspeakable acts of violence. The outer panels convey Beckmann's vision of the contemporary violence and brutality inflicted by people on their fellow human beings. In contrast to the dark vision of humanity in the flanking images, the central panel portrays the possibility of salvation for all. Four adult figures and one child occupy a rough wooden boat floating in an azure sea. A crowned figure with his back turned, the fisher king, grasps a net of fish and confers a blessing on the scene, while an ominous hooded man at the oars holds a fish - both allude to "the mystery of the world." On the other side of the boat, a woman, the Queen, clutches a small child facing the viewer, while the man sitting next to her, the King, is largely obscured. Beckmann described the central family to a friend by stating, "The King and Queen have freed themselves... The Queen carries the greatest treasure - Freedom - as her child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters - it is the departure, the new start." Beckmann traced an allegorical path through the darkness and suffering of daily life toward the light and freedom of redemption. He distilled the contemporary cultural climate of Europe into a transcendent message of hope, regardless of the era's tribulations. After this work, Beckmann completed nine more triptychs during the remainder of his career, all in a similarly jewel-toned palette and in a large scale suited to their grand, symbolic nature.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Originally entitled "Childhood," this painting is the most personally allegorical of Beckmann's triptychs. In it, he fused real and imagined memories from his youth to create an atmosphere tense with the contrast between fantastical dreams and lived reality. The right panel shows a classroom filled with students with a teacher at the front of the class, while two boys pass around a drawing in the foreground. This scene was inspired by an episode from Beckmann's youth in which he was reprimanded for passing drawings to his friends in class. In the left section, also from the artist's childhood, a child looks out a window at an organ grinder and the world surrounding him. The central panel depicts a young boy in military garb galloping on a rocking horse and brandishing a sword, as his slain Puss 'n Boots toy hangs on the wall. The boy's parents have just rushed up the stairs to survey the racket, while a clown-like figure hides in the closet - a common childhood nightmare. A voluptuous reclining redheaded woman, blowing bubbles with a pipe, dominates the foreground. Obstructing the boy's path to his fantasy woman is his grandmother, who reads a newspaper in the middle ground. Beckmann conveyed his own inner struggle through the clash between the imagery of the actual youthful exploits of a boy and his subconscious dreams and fears. The disjointed visual narrative of Beckmann's young life is also an allegory for the existential conflict experienced by many in modern society, who are torn between fulfilling all of their desires and their role within society. One of the last of his large triptychs, Beginning is the result of a mature artist in exile who stepped back to reflect and memorialize his personal history on canvas.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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First published on 01 Feb 2013. Updated and modified regularly
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