At his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1931, the daily Le Figaro called painter Max Beckmann "something like a Germanic Picasso." Nobody would hazard such a comparison today, but the magnificent exhibition of Beckmann's work, which opened in September at Paris' Centre Pompidou, is bound to remind viewers what that critic of an earlier age was getting at. Like his Spanish rival, Beckmann was a protean creator with an immense vitality, rich artistic vocabulary and strong sense of mission. If his art has less influence today than Picasso's, it may be because it remained so rooted in the concrete and very personal vision Beckmann had of the world around him. This major show of 60 works on paper, three sculptures and more than 100 paintings, aptly subtitled "A Painter in History," captures that aspect of Beckmann's legacy. Unlike many of his contemporaries Beckmann never abandoned his fascination with the world in favor of pure form or technique. He used a resolutely figurative approach to grapple with life, however it presented itself in war, in love, and, time and again, in his own often inscrutable face. Despite the many years he lived elsewhere Paris in 1903 and again from 1929 to 1932, Amsterdam from 1937 to 1947, and the United States until his death in 1950 it is the grim history of Germany itself that informs much of his work.
Supremely confident and self-aware, Beckmann intended from an early age to make a mark with his art. His early paintings, such as Young Men at the Seaside, painted in 1905 when the artist was 21, confirmed his own early stylistic assessment of himself as being "between Cézanne and Van Gogh." But after his experience as a medical orderly in Flanders in 1915, which led to a nervous breakdown, his paintings, such as The Descent from the Cross in 1917, took on a medieval starkness, and many of his figures became deformed by pain. His work began to reflect a cool empathy for the human condition, a stance Beckmann considered an artistic duty after the war. "I feel the need to be in the cities, among my fellow men," he wrote in 1918. "We must take part in the whole misery that is to come." The organizers of the Pompidou exhibition pay tribute to the war's telling effect on Beckmann by having visitors pass through a room where slow-motion footage shows soldiers in the Great War running from their trenches amid falling bombs.
Beckmann spurned categories, and particularly rejected the Expressionist label. Yet his work after the war in many ways epitomizes that movement, centered in the creative and dissolute chaos of Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Beckmann's drypoint sketches from the 1920s could be every bit as biting and cynical as those of the more overtly political George Grosz. But he had a magisterial distance few others could match.
Included among the cabaret artists and chimneysweeps in his 1922 Berlin Voyage series, for instance, are two drawings, each titled The Disenchanted (numbered I and II). One shows well-dressed and bitter burghers with the nationalistic newspaper Die Zeitung; the second shows socialists yawning over a call to rise up from Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht, who had been murdered by police in 1919. Beckmann, never a man for the barricades, seemed to be treating politics as just one more revealing but ultimately doomed human activity.
Indeed, there wasn't much of the bohemian to Max Beckmann; he saw his dedication to art as a service to society and never figured that meant he had to be an outsider. As he reached his period of greatest influence in the late 1920s and early '30s, his self-portraits (of which he painted almost 200) tended to depict a man of the world, often wearing a tie, almost always holding a cigarette. The image befitted a man who had by then become such an artistic force that the National Gallery in Berlin dedicated an entire room to his work in 1932.
The Nazis put a stop to that the following year and eventually accorded Beckmann the unintended honor of a place in the notorious "Degenerate Art" exhibit in Munich in 1937. During the following years in exile, Beckmann fled not to abstraction but to a treatment of life's fundamentals: he painted powerful tableaux entitled Birth and Death, and did many paintings of women, often using his wife, Quappi, as a model. In his later years he embarked on a series of complex, allegorical triptyches. He had completed the last of these, The Argonauts, in his New York studio the day before he died in 1950.
As a German very much of the 20th century, Beckmann had a dark vision, shorn of false sentiment and scornful of aesthetic pleasantries. The Pompidou exhibit, which will move on next year to London's Tate Modern and New York's Museum of Modern Art, does a fine job of aligning Beckmann's shifting stylistic approaches with his overall purpose, as he put it in 1938, to find "the idea which hides itself behind so-called reality." There may never be a Beckmann school of painting, but his chronicle of life in a cruel half-century nevertheless resonates with undimmed power.