Sunday, February 16, 2014

Scratched Up and Raw: The Print World of Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann (1884 –1950) was a German artist most known for his expressive style in both painting and printmaking. He rejected association with the German Expressionists in favor of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), which was a movement deviating away from the deeply emotional aspects of Expressionism. What has always drawn me to Beckmann's print work is his passionate and raw line. His scratched, even ugly, lines are often counter-weighted against a delicate, almost tracery web which weaves his images together. There is intimacy between his lovers/characters, and then in a flip of reality we see his own deeply disturbed pain searing through us through his self-portrait series.
Max Beckmann was born into a middle-class family in Leipzig, Saxony, during the German Empire. He enrolled at the Weimar Academy of Arts in 1899 and, between 1903 and 1904, traveled to Paris, Geneva, and Florence. During WWI, Beckmann volunteered to work as a medical orderly. He served in Belgium, where he met fellow artist Erich Heckel. He was discharged in 1915 after suffering a nervous breakdown. In 1925 he was appointed professor to teach a master class at the Städelschule Academy of Fine Art in Frankfurt.
The successes of Beckmann’s early career changed once Adolf Hitler came into power. In 1933, the Nazi government labelled Beckmann a "cultural Bolshevik" and dismissed him from his teaching position in Frankfurt. In 1937 more than 500 of his works were confiscated from German museums, and several pieces were included in the now infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. That same year, Beckmann took his wife, left Germany, and lived a ten year self-imposed exile in Amsterdam.

After the war, Beckmann and his wife moved to the United States, and he taught art at Washington University in St. Louis. Beckmann then taught at the University of Colorado, Boulder, during the summer of 1949 and the following fall at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He and his wife later moved to New York City where he died of a heart attack in 1950.

The trauma Beckmann experienced in the war moved his artwork away from most classical interpretations of the human figure to something distorted and fractured. His compositions became angled, broken and chaotic. There was no space to breathe or room to maneuver within. Ultimately, this scratched up distortion affected his view of himself, which can be easily seen in his featherly, yet raw-looking self-portraits.

Unlike several of his avant-garde contemporaries, Beckmann took up and advanced the tradition of figurative painting in a deeply personal form of modernism. He greatly admired the artwork of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Bosch, Bruegel and Grünewald. His composition style is also rooted in the tradition of medieval stained glass, the early renaissance idea of the triptych and he expanded them to include contemporary events.
Beckmann saw the world as a tragedy of man's inhumanity to man, and he saw life as a carnival of human folly. His work remained intense and allegorical throughout his career, but after the mid-1920s his style of painting changed to include Expressionistic brushwork and brighter colors. Some of his imagery refers to the decadent glamor of the Weimar Republic's cabaret culture, but from the 1930s on, his works often contain mythologized references to the brutalities of the Nazis. His subjects and symbols expressed universal themes of terror, redemption, and the mysteries of eternity and fate.

As for his printmaking, Beckmann made a total of 373 prints, all black and white, most of them produced between 1914 and 1923. He preferred etching and drypoint, but also worked in lithography; and he made woodcuts. Most of his prints were issued by leading dealer-publishers, including Paul Cassirer and J. B. Neumann, in Berlin, and Reinhard Piper, in Munich, although in 1921 Beckmann signed an exclusive contract with J. B. Neumann.
Like some of his art colleagues, Beckmann’s work falls within art movements, never clearly embracing one over another, so he, like the artists Oscar Kokoshka and Frida Kahlo, remain unique and outside normal categorization.
Lastly, the Parisian novelist and art historian, Stephan Reimertz, published Max Beckmann’s biography Eine Liebe im Porträt. Minna Tube - Künstlerin im Schatten von Max Beckmann,
Publ: Rowohlt Tb. 2002

Awards & Major exhibitions:
1912 First solo show, Kunstverein, Magdeburg, and Grossherzogliches Museum für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe, Weimar
1926 First show in the United States, J. B. Neumann’s New Art Circle, New York
1927 Honorary Empire Prize for German Art and the Gold Medal of the City of Düsseldorf
1928 Städtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim
1930 exhibitions in Basle and Zurich
1938 First of numerous exhibitions at Curt Valentin’s Buchholz Gallery, New York
1948 First retrospective in the United States, the City Art Museum, Saint Louis
1949 First prize in the exhibition Painting in the United States, the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh
1964-65 Museum of Modern Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Art Institute of Chicago
1984 Nassau County suburban art museum, NY
1995 Museum of Modern Art
1996 Guggenheim Museum
1996 Rome and Valencia
1997 Madrid
1998 Zurich
1998 St. Louis
2000 Munich
2006 Frankfurt
2007 Amsterdam
2002 Centre Pompidou, Paris
2003 Tate Modern
2011 Städel,Frankfurt

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