Max Beckmann Still Shocks Viewers With His Greatness

It has always been a conundrum for established opinion in the New York art world: how to come to terms with the German painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950), whose work is the subject of a riveting retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Long Island City, Queens. Beckmann was too big a figure-too ambitious, too demanding, too accomplished-to be ignored, yet he could not be easily accommodated, either. For tastes that were decisively determined early by the School of Paris and then by the New York School, he remained an enigmatic outsider. And it didn’t help his cause that he was also irrepressibly outspoken in his criticism of the kinds of art-especially abstraction-that New York embraced as a standard of achievement.

It wasn’t that his work lacked admirers-far from it. But they tended to serve as a cult following, parroting and simplifying many of Beckmann’s own prejudices, and this, too, contributed to his outsider status. “Although a man of his time, he did not fit his time, either in the largeness of his artistic ambition or in the variety and complexity of his approach,” writes Robert Storr, the curator of the MoMA retrospective, who accurately describes Beckmann as “neither a conservative nor a radical modernist” but “one of the great independents of modern art.”

The “largeness of his artistic ambition” is emphatically declared in the very first paintings we encounter in this exhibition-among them, Young Men by the Sea (1905), the Double Portrait of Max Beckmann and Minna Beckmann-Tube (1909) and The Sinking of the Titanic (1912), the latter a huge and not altogether successful attempt to emulate the high drama and monumental scale of Theodore Gericault’s 1819 masterwork, The Raft of the Medusa . These are certainly impressive accomplishments for an artist still in his 20′s, but they are not the kind of accomplishments that break new ground.

Before that could happen, Beckmann had to endure the savagery of the First World War, in which he served as a medical orderly in the German Army. He was discharged in 1915 after suffering a severe breakdown, and it was that horrific experience which gave birth to the crucial changes that transformed not only Beckmann’s art but his vision of life itself. War is an epic subject, brutalizing for many, yet ennobling for a few, and on Beckmann’s troubled sensibility, it had the dour but strangely liberating effect of allowing him to envision all of life as a claustrophobic battleground of struggle, cruelty, survival and lost illusions. To meet the challenge of this epic subject, he created a heroic pictorial style compounded of mordant caricature, stark realism, poetic allegory and a kind of shattered classicism that is unabashedly theatrical and as dissonant as an Alban Berg opera. Indeed, the opening scene in Berg’s Lulu , first performed in 1937, reads like the description of a panel in one of Beckmann’s triptychs: The sexually provocative Lulu, surrounded by suitors, poses in a painter’s studio; her distraught husband, meanwhile, dies of shock at her feet.

It was in 1937 that Hitler mounted the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich, an event that sent Beckmann and his second wife Quappi into exile in Amsterdam-and there they remained, hidden from the German occupation, until their departure for the United States in 1947. Yet, amazingly, this was also a decade of copious production for Beckmann. As Jill Lloyd reminds us in a moving account, “Beckmann: Exile in Amsterdam 1937-47,” in the exhibition catalog, “The artist’s physical imprisonment in Amsterdam nevertheless liberated his imagination and gave rise to one of his greatest periods of invention. Beckmann responded to the human drama of the war with a surge of intense creativity. Alongside his ambitious cycles of prints and drawings … Beckmann painted some 250 paintings during his years of exile, including five of his monumental triptychs.”

In my view-not a view universally shared, alas-the pictorial oeuvre that Beckmann created in the last three years of his life is an art that gives us a more abundant and enduring account of the moral and historical ethos of the period in which he lived and worked-a period that added revolution, persecution and exile to the horrors of war-than any other painter of the modern era. There are no doubt greater pleasures to be found in Matisse-and more, too, for other painters to makes use of-just as there is more in the way of variety, experiment and innovation in Picasso. But in no other painter are the tragedy and comedy and pathos of this accursed period so vividly captured or so profoundly explored. Compared to the great allegorical triptychs that represent the summit of Beckmann’s achievement, even a modern classic like Picasso’s Guernica has, for this observer, the look and feel of an overblown political cartoon.

The exhibition that Robert Storr has organized is by no means as complete as one might wish it to be, and it’s bad luck that it had to be shown at MoMA’s makeshift Queens facility, with its dingy cement floors and warehouse atmosphere. But with 132 works, it’s a brilliant and compelling exhibition all the same-not to be missed. For newcomers to Beckmann, it’s certain to be a revelation. To think that the old MoMA once devoted two full floors to the work of Andy Warhol! One wonders if Beckmann will ever be accorded an exhibition on the scale that his achievement demands.

Max Beckmann remains on view at MoMA QNS, 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard in Long Island City, through Sept. 29.