Max Beckmann was born into the generation that laid the old order to rest on the battlefields of the First World War. His birthplace was Leipzig and the year was 1884. He was five years older than an Austrian named Adolf Hitler whose regime would brand him a degenerate and attempt to destroy his art.
The Beckmanns were a middle class family, supported by markup on agriculture. The elder Beckmann was a grain merchant who never saw the Twentieth Century. He died when Max was ten. Despite the tragedy of his father's death, young Max endured a reasonably proper education. After several years of boarding school, he had decided on a change in trajectory. Max Beckmann decided he should be a painter.
Against his family's objections, he applied for entrance to the Koenigliche Akademie in Dresden. Like Adolf Hitler, another young man of his generation with artistic aspirations, he failed the exam. Unlike his future antagonist, Beckmann had a backup plan. In 1900, he was accepted to the Grossherzogliche Saechsische Kunstschule in Weimar. Hitler turned bitter in Vienna.
In Weimar he received academic art instruction. Students learned to draw from antique statues and progressed to human models. One student caught his eye and he married her in 1906. Her name was Minna Tube. Their only son was named Peter.
In 1903, Beckmann left Weimar for Paris to refine his craft. The experience was not to his liking. The artist saved the Nazis later trouble when he destroyed most his Paris work himself. The following year he returned to Germany and took up residence in the capitol. There he joined the Berliner Secession which was founded in 1898 as an alternative to the conservative state-run Association of Berlin Artists.
During this time, Beckmann was under the sway of the German Impressionists. He painted stylish and psychologically probing portraits. In 1910, he joined the Secession's board as its youngest member. His work is prominently displayed in the gallery of Paul Cassirer, one of Berlin's most influential promoters of modernism. By any measure, Beckmann was successful. His works sold and he earned association awards. Yet great critical acclaim eluded him. That would change as the world changed in the aftermath of the war.
The Great War
Max Beckmann was thirty when the Great Powers lost their collective minds and plunged the world into catastrophe. Adolf Hitler was twenty-five and painting post cards to make ends meet. Both were sucked into the whirlwind of war. Hitler fought with the Bavarians on the Western Front. Beckmann tended the wounded in East Prussia as a volunteer paramedic. The War had a profound effect on each.
In 1915, Beckmann was transferred to Belgium where he served as a medical orderly. A steady stream of mutilated bodies gradually broke him down. In July of that year, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Max Beckmann was discharged from service in 1917. Beckmann's art was transformed by the experience of war. It became infused with emotion as he turned toward German Expressionism. Hilter became emotional as he recovered from a mustard gas attack in a military hospital. Emotion made it easy for him to embrace the Stab In The Back myth. Beckmann was relieved the war had ended.
After his discharge, Max Beckmann returned to his studio. His war sketches differed from those he used to produce. Working from those drawings, he created work that was more dynamic and more infused with emotion. His academically correct style gave way to distortions of figure and space. This stylistic change reflected Beckmann's altered vision of himself and humanity.
Over the course of his life, Beckmann produced an extraordinary number of self-portraits. His production is rivaled only by Rembrandt and Picasso. He was fascinated by philosophy and the notion of the "Self." Throughout his life, Beckmann struggled to define himself through his painting. His self-portraits are infused with symbolism.
Centuries don't begin on time and the twentieth was no exception. While New Year's parties were exceptional at the end of December in 1899, the twentieth century finally took shape in the wake of the War. Beckmann tapped the zeitgeist. As his painting changed in the wake of the war so did the tastes of his audience. Beckmann enjoyed popularity and honors during the Weimar period. During this time, he left Berlin for Frankfurt in order to take a teaching post at the Fine Arts Academy.
In 1933, the Nazis achieved power and rained on the Weimar party. Modern art ran anathema to Adolf Hitler's conservative sensibilities. The once starving artist preferred classical form. Hitler's regime branded Beckmann a degenerate and confiscated his art. Several pieces were placed in the Degenerate Art Museum in Munich in a vain attempt to illustrate societal decay. The museum was enormously popular. Where else could a German see such beautiful works by modern masters?
Beckmann suffered personally under the Nazi boot. His work could not be exhibited and he was stripped of his teaching position in Frankfurt. For the next decade he lived in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, unable to obtain an American visa. In 1944, as the Thousand Year Reich collapsed, Beckmann was drafted into the German army. At a time when the Wehrmacht was desperate for warm bodies, Beckmann was declared unfit for duty. Ten years of poverty had taken their toll. He died a few years later at the age of sixty-six.