In Max Beckmann: The Formative Years, 1915-1925 at Neue Galerie, we discover a multifaceted Beckmann beyond his iconic circus and masked figures, exploring religious themes, creating elegant portraits, and expressing social critique through bold drawings and graphics.
During World War I, Beckmann served as a nurse and medical orderly, which left him traumatized and ultimately led to a nervous breakdown. The exhibition begins with drawings and drypoints from this period, reflecting his harrowing experiences.
The emaciated figures in paintings like “Descent From the Cross,” “Christ and the Sinner,” and “Adam and Eve” (all from 1917) reveal Beckmann’s inspiration from Northern Renaissance woodcuts, and his crowded compositions foreshadow his later works.
The show progresses to showcase elegantly painted female portraits, incisive drawings, and prints of male subjects that made Beckmann a favored painter among a circle of collectors, intellectuals, and friends during the Weimar Republic in the early 1920s. It also presents a reclining nude, crowded still lifes, and “Paris Society,” a densely painted canvas of men and women in evening dress, reflecting the raw and intense style Beckmann is known for.
The following gallery delves into drypoints and lithographs from 1914 to 1919, displaying titles like “Hell,” “Hunger,” and “The Martyrdom,” which align with the post-World War I gloom in Germany. Beckmann’s ability to extract drama from scratchy lines and tones is evident in these works. Self-portrait prints and a 1922 canvas with Beckmann scowling and holding a cigarette make the artist’s presence undeniable.
In the subsequent section, we encounter various self-portraits of Beckmann in different attire, along with narrow paintings depicting multiple figures in chaotic compositions. The imagery here is a blend of tender colors and unsettling undertones, featuring circus performers and people in peculiar positions.
The exhibition is on display at the Neue Galerie until January 15, 2024.
Featured image: Max Beckmann Self-Portrait with a Cigarette (1923). Courtesy of 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Source: MoMA