Monday, February 11, 2008

Walking the Tightrope

“We are all tightrope walkers. With them it is the same as with artists, and so with all humanity,” Max Beckmann said in a 1948 speech titled "Letters to a Woman Painter." Born February 12, 1884, Beckmann served as a medic in the German army during World War I until he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1915, the year he painted his Self-Portrait as a Medic (above). Whereas before the war, Beckmann painted in an Old Master style, after his experiences, he became an Expressionist, reproducing the products of his tortured soul onto canvas. From a very early age, Beckmann studied philosophy, always seeking some meaning in the world. When that meaning became distorted in the trenches of the Great War, face to face with death and dismemberment as a medic, the world reflected in Beckmann’s eyes became a distorted nightmare.

As the years passed, Beckmann turned to painting in the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) style, the counter-reaction to the excesses of Expressionism and a more social type of art. Beckmann taught and shared in the hopeful, sometimes decadent freedoms of the Weimar Republic. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, however, spelled the beginning of the end of Beckmann’s involvement in German art. In 1932, Beckmann painted the highly personal triptych Departure (above). Beckmann said of the right hand panel featuring a figure holding a lamp: “You can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp, dragging along tied to you, as part of yourself, the corpse of your memories." The “corpse” of Beckmann’s memories of a free Germany haunted him until his departure in 1937, after the “Degenerate Art” exhibition sealed his fate and that of all modern art in Hitler’s Germany. Beckmann, however, retained some sense of hope in his Departure in the center panel’s image of the queen carrying the treasure of freedom as her ship travels through darkness and brutality towards a better world.

Beckmann fled to Amsterdam until the end of World War II. He later emigrated to the United States, where he continued to paint large triptychs based on mystical and mythological themes, such as The Argonauts (above, from 1949-1950). Beckmann finished The Argonauts just before his death in 1950. To the end, Beckmann walked the tightrope, balancing himself emotionally and artistically through the exploration of ancient themes through the most modern of artistic styles.

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