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The King, 1933-37
Acrobat on the Trapeze, 1940
Dream of Monte Carlo 1940-43
Begin the Beguine 1946
max beckmann in exile at the guggenheim soho by Donald Kuspit
I'd like to believe Beckmann's triptychs are the great paintings they claim to be, but I don't think they are. Nine were completed during Beckmann's years in the Netherlands (1937-47) and the United States (1947-50, the year of his death), and seven are on exhibition here. (A tenth was never finished.) He left Nazi Germany the year of the "Degenerate Art" exhibition, in which several of his works were included, never to return. The bitterness of his exile is evident in these works: violence abounds, literally and emotionally. There are tortured, trussed-up figures and swords, and a characteristically stark, garish atmosphere, in which stagelit--and stage- struck--figures, some of them transparently allegorical (for example, the woman with the bird's head in Carnival, 1942-45) are outlined in black, which sometimes spills onto their bodies, as though an intimation of death. Beckmann is clearly dealing with the dark side of human nature, and he sees no bright side. Indeed, the light seems artificial and forced in the works--like the party mood of many of them. The scenes are often crowded with people, who tend to irrationally overlap, and cluttered with all kinds of daily bric-a-brac--such still life items as newspapers, musical instruments, furniture of all kinds, grotesquely enlarged fruit--almost to the point of chaos. Beckmann's claustrophobic tableaus, while ostensibly medieval in their "tactless" space and hierarchical ordering of figures (heroically large ones are the tragic stars, small ones part of the sinister supporting cast)--early in his career Beckmann was a student of medieval German triptychs, full of horrific scenes of Christian martyrdom, often enacted by vulgar human grotesques--lack the narrative and moral clarity of the traditional triptychs. There is a stalemate between good and evil, as though the outcome of their conflict was in doubt--which it isn't in the Christian story. In Beckmann's more modern story goodness is often personified by a lovely young woman-- a kind of seductive victim--and evil by a sinister male figure. They appear side by side, neither unequivocally dominating the other. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, seems to be all-powerful, but their roles tend to reverse, and they have different kinds of power. In Departure, 1932, the woman helplessly tied up in the left panel is a victim of brute male power, while the woman tied to an upside down male figure in the right panel is kept alive by the power of insight, symbolized by the lamp she holds. There are two torture chambers, and different kinds of torture--physical and emotional--and goodness may not survive in the former, but it will in the latter. But of course its victory is Pyrrhic. Indeed, Beckmann uses the battle of the sexes to stage the struggle for survival which he endured--a struggle complicated by the fact that it is the survival of independent art as well as spirited life that was at stake during the Hitler period. Art is often represented by Beckmann himself, displaced into a variety of persona, as though not only to signal his status as a permanently displaced person but the artist's position as a persona non grata in society (if not in our celebrity society). He could never go back to live in Germany, which had rejected him and his art, but the larger issue is that he felt, because of his circumstances, that to be an artist was to be no one in particular. Only a creator of illusions, he was an illusion himself--an impersonator, rather than a person. Beckmann may have been the star of his own paintings, but he had no clear place--identity--offstage. (Lionel Trilling has argued that the actor can play everyone but himself because he has a degraded sense of self, indeed, no idea of who he is in reality.) No doubt Beckmann was trying to justify himself--to show that he could make art, indeed, great art, despite his rejection by German society--but, without a clear social base, he was no longer sure of his raison d'etre. He is disoriented, and his paintings show his disorientation in their space and turmoil. I am suggesting that Beckmann's triptychs-- and the accompanying works, which seem like details from or studies for them, although they are independent if clearly related works, in terms of both their figure types and irrational space--are complicated personal statements, fraught with all kinds of emotional issues. But they are also meant to be social allegories--statements about the Zeitgeist. This is the excuse for their grand format. But, like Picasso's Guernica--with which they implicitly compete (they are both painted in a broad, flat way, although Picasso's picture is monochromatic while Beckmann's are saturated with clashing colors)--I think they fail as social statements, whatever their psychological interest. (They are also, I think, competing with Beethoven's Nine Symphonies, but without Schiller's Ode to Joy in the final one.) Like Picasso's painting, Beckmann's triptychs have an archaic flavor, down to the iconographic detail of the sword (which Picasso also uses)--why not the more realistic, contemporary gun?--and symbolism. The symbolism's irony hardly begins to do the job of conveying the horror of the Nazi world, and in fact seems self-defeating: to suggest that the Nazis were clowns, acrobats, actors--theatrical tricksters (even though, like Beckmann [and many postmodern artists], they were masters of spectacle)--is as inadequate as labeling them thugs or gangsters, as Brecht did. It hardly begins to tell the truth about their ideology and behavior. Beckmann's paradoxicality--his use of the carnival masquerade, with its odd air of mania, to convey the sinister character of Nazi society--seems facile. In Carnival (1942-43), It is nice to see a man carrying a woman (Beckmann's wife Quappi) away from a menacing figure--hopefully to safety--the way Aeneas carried his father from burning Troy, but it hardly begins to convey what it meant to leave one's homeland. Similarly, the famous king and queen in the center panel of Departure have more to do with self-aggrandizement than with the depressing social reality. No doubt Beckmann needed his narcissistic defenses to endure--needed to allegorize his situation to feel superior to it--but it sells his anxiety short, as well as the complicated modern reality of German fascism. Beckmann mythologized his experience and Nazi society, but that did not do them justice. In fact, it seems clear, looking at the non-triptychs, and using them to read the triptychs, that Beckmann's exile provoked a personal crisis, and perhaps a crisis in his relationship with his wife. Beckmann's numerous couples seem at odds, for all the intimacy between them. The works seem preoccupied with sex--nubile beauties abound--and may have to do with its inhibition in the circumstances of ostracization and exile--the ultimate alienation. Beckmann, like Picasso, could never escape himself to make a really relevant social statement. His triptychs are fantasies of suffering, rather than social analysis. They are even failures at transcendent world theater, in Hofmannsthal's sense, for they are too full of unconscious, unresolved emotional conflict. "Max Beckmann in Exile," Oct. 9, 1996-Jan. 5, 1997, at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, 575 Broadway, NYC, NY 10012. DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.