Special exhibition: Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann – the pre-exile years

Painting: Max Beckmann, Departure
Max Beckmann: Departure, Triptych 1932-1935
Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Fotoabteilung, Museum of Modern Art, New York © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015
Special exhibition: Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann – the pre-exile years

1 The successful artist

Before Max Beckmann became a “degenerate” artist, he was extraordinarily successful in Germany and enjoyed some renown abroad as well. With the painting Die Nacht [The Night] 1918/1919, he transcended the bounds of expressionism to become one of the leading lights of a movement inadequately termed Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] or Magic Realism.

When the War ended, his work became increasingly occupied with the subject of theatre, including the variations of circus, cabaret and carnival. Costume, masquerade and role-playing now corresponded to Beckmann's conception of life, as evidenced not least by self-portraits as a circus director, Harlequin and artist. The world of appearances, the unreal, also encompasses the world of dreams and history. Not only the works that have these terms in their titles, but indeed all others as well, are for Beckmann pictures of a dual reality.

In the 1920s, Beckmann's personal and artistic endeavours were aided by fortuitous circumstances. Among them were a major publication in 1924, his second marriage to the 20-year-younger Mathilde “Quappi” von Kaulbach in 1925, repeated stays in Italy and Paris, where from 1929 to 1932 he had a second studio and apartment, and the wide public acclaim he enjoyed. In Frankfurt, Max Beckmann moved in the important cultural circles around the Frankfurter Zeitung (Heinrich Simon) and the Städelsche Kunstinstitut (Georg Swarzenski), in 1925 he received a post at the Art School and had his first exhibition of his complete works at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1928. His painting Die Loge [The Loge] received an award at the Carnegie Institute's international exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1929. August 1930 saw the first solo exhibition of Beckmann's work abroad. Oil paintings, watercolours, pastels and drawings from the years 1906-1930 were shown at the Kunsthalle Basel. A month later there was an exhibition of prints at the Kunstmuseum Basel. The exhibition at the Kunsthalle then travelled to Zurich, where it was shown at the Kunsthaus. In 1931 the artist had his first solo exhibition in Paris at the Galerie de la Renaissance, followed by another one a year later at Galerie Bing, also in Paris. Again in 1931, Max Beckmann was also represented in the exhibition of German art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and had a solo exhibition in the city at I. B. Neumann's New Art Circle.

From the end of World War I to the beginning of the 1930s, Max Beckmann was increasingly regarded internationally as an important artist. 

2 The “degenerate” artist

In Germany, however, political conditions had changed since 1930, and with them the cultural-political situation. On 15 September of that year, Beckmann was anxious to find out “what had become of Germany's fate”. In the letter to his wife Quappi he is referring to the Reichstag elections of the day before, knowing that a major political shift was possible; and it did indeed come to pass, as the NSDAP became the second-biggest party in the Reichstag. Beckmann intuited what it would mean for him as an artist if the Nazis fully took over power, and wrote the following to Günther Franke on 23 October: “If you get the chance, don't forget to tell the Nazis that I'm a German painter.”

Max Beckmann, who had faced growing animosity since 1930, wrote to Reinhard Piper on 15 February 1932: “I am trying to overcome the talentless madness of the age through the most intense work. – One just becomes so ridiculously indifferent to all this political gangsterism in the long run and one feels most at home on the island of his soul.” He was soon disturbed on that island, however. Though Hildebrand Gurlitt and Herbert Kunze planned exhibitions of Beckmann's work in Hamburg and Erfurt, respectively, and Ludwig Justi, director of the Nationalgalerie, had set aside a whole room with 10 of Beckmann's paintings at Berlin's Kronprinzenpalais, which was presented to the public on 15 February, the room was ordered dissolved by the Nazis in early July and the exhibition in Erfurt never took place.

In January 1933, Max Beckmann had taken a flat in Berlin – evidently anticipating what was to come – with the intention of moving to the city. In 1933 he was dismissed by the Art School in Frankfurt after Hitler was named Chancellor of the Reich on 30 January 1933. The new flat in Berlin thus served its purpose, initially at any rate.

With a total ban on modern art on an international scale with respect to the purchase and exhibition by public museums, commercial sale and in some cases even manufacture of such works instituted by the Nazis in 1936, a decree issued on 30 June 1937 authorised the president of the Reich Chamber of Art, Adolf Ziegler, to select and secure “works of German decadent art since 1937” for an exhibition. The exhibition titled "Entartete Kunst" [degenerate art] was opened on 19 July 1937 in the arcades of Munich's Hofgarten. Later it visited numerous other cities of the German Reich. The exhibition included twelve paintings and twelve graphic works by Max Beckmann, but 190 of his works in German museums were confiscated as “degenerate”, including 23 paintings. Some of his works, like those of other affected artists, were sold for foreign currency to other countries, while others were destroyed.

On 18 July 1937, one day before the so-called ‘shame exhibition’, another exhibition, the Great German Art Exhibition in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst – today the Haus der Kunst – opened, also in Munich, with works that were agreeable to the Nazis. The opening remarks, which also included scathing attacks against modern art, were delivered by Adolf Hitler. Max Beckmann, however, had already grasped what lay ahead and and had emigrated to Amsterdam with his wife the day before.