Arts and Entertainment

Max Beckmann: A Decade of Discord

Max Beckmann: The Formative Years, 1915-1925 explores the dark early works of an artist traumatized by World War I.

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By Celeste Hoo

The Neue Galerie’s latest exhibit, Max Beckmann: The Formative Years, 1915–1925, showcases a major shift in the German artist’s career. In 1915, Beckmann was discharged from service as a medical orderly in World War I. Because Beckmann was horrified by his experiences, his subject matter when he returned to art reflected European sociopolitical tensions during and after the war, while his style became bleak and exaggerated. The proportions of Beckmann’s figures were contorted, creating portrayals of humanity that appeared unnerving, grotesque, and even malicious. While Beckmann spent the decade in Frankfurt recovering from a nervous breakdown, his work therapeutically processed his trauma from the battlefield, which he often drew from as inspiration. 

The exhibit is organized chronologically; in the first gallery on the museum’s second floor are paintings and drawings made by Beckmann directly after his time serving in the war, projecting the suffering he witnessed onto Biblical imagery. The floor above explores Beckmann’s works during the late 1910s and early 1920s. These range from colorful paintings to black-and-white prints; in all of them, Beckmann’s disturbed psyche is undeniably apparent. 

Beckmann’s most notable religious paintings, including his renditions of Adam and Eve (1917) and Christ and the Sinner (1917), share a dull grayscale palette, which removes any sense of uplifting sacredness from typically vibrant Christian images. Perhaps most interestingly, the haunting Descent From the Cross (1917) shows the limp, lifeless body of Christ being carried away from the cross. The scene carries an air of death through the hues of light and cold gray, which are juxtaposed with the dark red found in Christ’s bloody, stigmata-scarred hands and feet and the sun looming in the background. Christ’s appearance is unconventional for the time. He is identifiable by the infamous crown of thorns atop his head and his pose: bruised limbs spread out to reference his former position on the cross. However, his head is completely bald, and he is devoid of facial hair. His ghostly white, stiff body is unsettlingly emaciated and bony, and his features are droopy and elongated. Additionally, blue veins spread through his skin, accentuated by faint strokes of yellow and green. The medieval paintings Beckmann took inspiration from depicted Christ as an untouched entity of sacred, holy power, even post-mortem. However, Beckmann’s Jesus is desolate, weak, and frail. He has no halo emanating from his head nor angels surrounding him—the painting is devoid of the traditional imagery suggesting that his death is part of a greater, God-given purpose. By removing the scene’s divine connotations, Beckmann reinforces its sheer horror and raw tragedy. Descent From the Cross appears to portray Christ’s death not as a salvation, but as another instance of meaningless human brutality—possibly questioning whether Christ’s sacrifice truly cleansed humanity of sin, especially considering the bloodshed of World War I that Beckmann experienced firsthand. 

Christ’s referential positioning and sunken facial features in Descent From the Cross are almost completely reused for the corpse of communist leader Rosa Luxemburg in Beckmann’s lithograph piece The Martyrdom (1919), which intends to compare the two figures. The Martyrdom is displayed in an isolated gallery alongside other prints in the series Hell (1918–1919), a collection that showcases Beckmann’s disillusionment with postwar German society. Luxemburg was viciously assassinated by paramilitaries sent by the Social Democratic Party during the 1919 Spartacist Uprising, an attempted Marxist revolution she led. The print presents an event of dark pandemonium. It is devoid of color, and shadow is created with rough, sketchy lines. The chaotic array of soldiers’ limbs as they carry Luxemburg’s mangled body clutters the entire scene, their arms and legs meshing together to appear as sharp, angular prisms rather than human body parts. Amongst the soldiers is a capitalist—identifiable by his suit—laughing at Luxemburg and seizing her leg, as though mocking her working-class advocacy. In the stylistic unity of Luxemburg’s and Christ’s depictions, Beckmann’s lack of faith in the German future is apparent, as is his skepticism of substitutionary atonement. Luxemburg was a beacon of hope and change for postwar Europe, standing for anti-war activism, communist egalitarianism, and democracy: causes the print implies were ultimately lost in her death.  

The exhibit’s final gallery centers on Beckmann’s 1920s works. By that time, Beckmann’s art had begun to incorporate warmer, more saturated colors such as yellow, red, and cyan. However, the gray originally found in his religious work still has a tangible presence, either as a dominating filter or in small hints speckled throughout. Even in its limited form, the gray bestows each canvas with the feeling of despair consistent with the rest of the exhibit. This is amplified by the subject matter: Galleria Umberto (1925) was made in reaction to the National Fascist Party’s 1922 takeover of Italy. In Galleria Umberto, a man hangs from a ceiling with his arms cleanly chopped off, leaving a red, bloody outline on the ends of his limb stumps. Behind the hanging man, Italian flags cover a yellow wall as the room floods, with four uncomfortable figures caught up in the desaturated, foamy water. Two of the figures seem to have their attention on the viewer: one staring straight ahead, another pointing a telescope in that direction. The figures are crowded together to form a claustrophobic circle. This sense of confinement is accentuated by the canvas’s narrowness and the wide red-purple columns painted along its borders to reinforce the space’s limitedness. Through a window in the background, all that can be seen is dark black paint. The window invokes the sense that the room (which alludes to the impending, drowning doom of Italian fascism) is an isolated spot in a void. This sensation; the painting’s colorful, uncanny imagery; and the hints of harsh reality provided by the Italian flags, is dreamlike, as though the viewer is experiencing an unfolding nightmare. 

During this pivotal decade, Beckmann grappled with the implications of World War I, the gradual fall of European democracy, and the social instability of Weimar Germany. From dark political imagery to a style capturing violence and melancholy, the artwork shown in Max Beckmann: The Formative Years makes the artist’s postwar mental struggle overwhelmingly evident. The exhibit is visually satisfying through its eye-catching large-scale paintings—canvases with detailed shadows, thin outlines, and distinctly stylized proportions. It succeeds in presenting an overall picture representative of the artist's mind through smaller—though still thoroughly unsettling and impactful—prints, allowing viewers to leave the exhibit and its art, both amazed and perturbed.