Max Carl Friedrich Beckmann (Leipzig 1884 –1950 New York) was a German painter, printmaker, sculptor, and writer. Although he is classified as an Expressionist artist, he rejected both the term and the movement. In the 1920s, he was associated with the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit).
He spent his military service as a medical orderly until he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1915. Traumatized by experiences of WW I and well-read in philosophy and literature, Beckmann also contemplated mysticism and theosophy in search of the "Self". As a true painter-thinker, he strove to find the hidden spiritual dimension in his subjects, leaving the academically way of painting behind. Beckmann often had an undercurrent of moodiness or unease in his works, even when dealing with light subject matter like circus performers.
By the 1930s, his work became more explicit in its horrifying imagery and distorted forms with combination of brutal realism and social criticism, coinciding with the rise of nazism in Germany. Many of Beckmann's paintings express the agonies of Europe in the first half of the 20th century and many symbols assume a larger meaning, voicing universal themes of terror, redemption, and the mysteries of eternity and fate.
His fortunes during the Weimar Republic changed with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, whose dislike of Modern Art quickly led to its suppression by the state. In 1933, the Nazi government called Beckmann a "cultural Bolshevik" and dismissed him from his teaching position at the Art School in Frankfurt. The day after Hitler's radio speech about degenerate art in 1937, Beckmann left Germany with his second wife, Quappi, for Amsterdam, although he preferred to go to the US. The works completed in his Amsterdam studio were very powerful with large triptychs. After WW II Beckmann Beckmann was warmly welcomed in America. His art was well received. This led to rapid success.
During the last three years of his life, he taught at Washington University and at the Brooklyn Museum. After stops in Denver and Chicago, he and Quappi took an apartment in Manhattan where he died in 1950 on his way to see one of his paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In that year he had won the Prix Conte-Volpi at the Venice Biennale.
He admired Cézanne and Van Gogh, but also Blake, Rembrandt, and Rubens, as well as Northern European artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, such as Bosch, Bruegel, and Matthias Grünewald. His style of figurative painting and method of composition are partially rooted in the imagery of medieval stained glass. Engaging with the genres of portraiture, landscape, still life, and history painting, his diverse body of work created a very personal but authentic version of modernism, one with a healthy deference to traditional forms. Max Beckmann dreamed up a world of actors, cabaret singers, heroes, and thugs, whose dramas unfold on city streets, at masquerades and carnivals, and in candlelit chambers. The artist himself is often part of the action, usually costumed. He is also known for the self-portraits painted throughout his life, their number and intensity rivaled only by those of Rembrandt and Picasso.
Max Beckmann used all kinds of techniques to manipulate the space in his paintings. The innovative and modern aspect of his work lies not so much in his choice of subject, but rather in his elaboration of it. Especially the way in which he represents, or actually manipulates, space is unique with sharp angles, alienating perspectives, cut offs and oppressive frames. The perspectives resonate with the turbulent Europe during and between two world wars. Beckmann's paintings are a reaction to the changing society. The perspective never are/seem balanced.
Many of Beckmann's late paintings are displayed in American museums. He had a profound influence American painters like Philip Guston and Nathan Oliveira and, indeed, on (Boston) American Figurative Expressionism. His posthumous reputation perhaps suffered from his very individual artistic path as he considered himself not to be part of a movement. The Saint Louis Art Museum holds the largest public collection of Beckmann paintings in the world and held a major exhibition of his work in 1998.
Since the late 20th century, Beckmann's work has gained an increasing international reputation. After the Gugenheim, Moma and others in the past now Kunstmuseum Den Haag has an exhibition on his oeuvre based on his imagination of space. His essays, plays and, above all, his diaries are also unique historical documents. A selection of Beckmann's writings have been published as well as his biography.