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The Mythic Imagination of Beckmann in Exile
“Self-Portrait With Horn,” a 1938 painting by Max Beckmann.
Max Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait With Horn” is one of the finest treasures of the Neue Galerie, the sumptuous Upper East Side bastion of modern German and Austrian art. Painted in brusque, brushy strokes in high-contrast darks and lights, it depicts the artist in a black-and-orange striped dressing gown holding up a silver hunter’s horn in one sausage-fingered hand. He looks sideways with an intent expression as though he had sounded a note and was awaiting an answering response. Or he may be listening for the hounds of war.

It was 1938, and Beckmann was nearing his mid-50s when he made “Self-Portrait With Horn.” The year before he and his wife, Quappi, fled Germany, where he had been one of the country’s most esteemed and successful artists until the Nazis rose to power and declared him a degenerate. In his painting he portrays himself as an artist in exile who fears that his art will no longer be “heard.”

The story behind Beckmann’s self-portrait is told in a brief, illuminating book by the art historian Jill Lloyd recently published by the Neue Galerie. The museum has celebrated the occasion by assembling a small exhibition of portraits by other German artists centered around “Self-Portrait With Horn” and two other Beckmanns from the 1920s, a self-portrait and a small political allegory.

Perusing the reproductions in Ms. Lloyd’s book — which includes numerous other self-portraits and examples of the late allegorical triptychs — you can imagine a great exhibition focusing on Beckmann in exile. The exhibition now at the Neue Galerie is not so exciting. Along with the three Beckmanns it presents a seemingly random selection of paintings and drawings by Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad and others identified with the so-called New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit). Half-baked as it is, however, the show does have the virtue of highlighting what is distinct about Beckmann’s art and suggesting what made him so much better than his contemporaries.

The New Objectivists were social satirists who delighted in exposing in exacting and often prurient detail the tawdry, corrupt and hypocritical aspects of life in Weimar-era Germany. Favorite motifs were corpulent naked women and scrawny prostitutes, several examples of which are included in the present exhibition. Along with an elegant picture by Schad of two beautiful, lightly clad young women masturbating, there are some willfully grotesque paintings of less conventionally attractive nude or partly nude women by Dix and Otto Griebel.

The more respectful portraits and self-portraits of the artists and their friends that make up the bulk of the show are comparatively boring. See, for example, Dix’s insipid Northern Renaissance-style painting of the overweight, bald-headed Johann Edwin Wolfensberger, a Zurich printer. Since all the portraits in the show are of identifiable men, and all the nudes or partial nudes represent anonymous women, there also is a sexist tinge.

It is instructive to note how Beckmann departs from the New Objectivity with which he was associated earlier in his career. The most obvious difference is in his generalizing style, which favors a sensuous, painterly physicality and a more gestural urgency. The deeper difference is in Beckmann’s more expansive, mythic imagination.

He envisions people and society in terms of archetypal costume dramas of good and evil and heroism and villainy. In his self-portraits he may play an aging king, a prophet in the wilderness or, as in a wonderful self-portrait from 1923 included in the exhibition, a tough-looking man about town in black tie and bowler hat posing before a theater curtain with a cigar wedged between two fingers.

In Beckmann’s dynamically jumbled multifigure narratives there is often an appealing sweetness that calls to mind a sophisticated sort of children’s book illustration. His themes are anything but juvenile, however. “Galleria Umberto” from 1925 is a bewildering, nightmarish scene in which a man with amputated arms hangs upside down over a group of people engulfed by flood waters. Only the colors of a partly submerged Italian flag hint that the painting is a meditation on the rise of Fascism in Italy.

As it turned out, things did not go too badly for Beckmann after he left Germany. Living in Amsterdam for the next decade, he continued to work prolifically, and his paintings continued to be bought and exhibited secretly by powerful friends in Germany. His work was much admired in the United States too. In 1942 the Museum of Modern Art acquired his triptych “Departure” (1932-35), which remains one of the most resonant works in its collection.

In 1947 Beckmann moved to the United States, where he took a teaching position at Washington University in St. Louis. He also taught at the art school of the Brooklyn Museum. He enjoyed three happy and productive years before his death in 1950. He never again set foot in his native land.

Image and text by The New York Times, USA

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