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Carnival, 1942-43

The King, 1933-37

Acrobat on the Trapeze, 1940

Departure, 1932-35

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 


"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