German painter Max Beckmann was a leading figure in the Expressionist movement, and best-known for his self-portraits and his forcefully expressive style of painting. His art inspired and influenced great American painters such as Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston.
Max Beckmann was born in 1884 in Leipzig, East Germany, into a farming family. Soon after his birth, his parents gave up the farm and moved into the city. As a child, Max showed an interest in drawing, and by the age of sixteen, he entered the Weimar Academy of Arts where he studied under Hans von Marees.
In 1903, Max Beckmann married Minna Tube, and the couple moved to Paris a year later after stopping first to visit Forence and Geneva. During his travels, he came upon the works of Piero della Francesca, Cezanne, Van Gogh, as well as the French primitives, which inspired him to paint in the impressionist style. He had a successful first solo show in 1912.
Beckmann’s service to his country as a medic during World War I was terminated early when the horrors of war caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown. His art evolved to an expressionist style, his paintings a reflection of his experience. His works became a distortion of both figure and space reflecting the violent and painful tone of war. ‘The Night’, a painting that conveys man’s brutality against man, is one of his most exemplary works of the war period.
In 1915, Beckmann took on a teaching position at Stadelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt and continued to paint scenes from everyday life. Self-portraits, including the classic ‘Self Portrait in Tuxedo’ (1927), were done as an exercise to explore emotion. In 1933, he was dismissed as a teacher by the Nazi Party. He went to Paris and spent his time painting. It was around this period that he began to use the triptych format, influenced in part by Hieronymus Bosch. His series of nine triptychs took him the remainder of his life to complete.
Hitler disliked Modern Art and declared that Expressionist Art was ‘degerate art’; hence, Beckmann’s works were exhibited alongside other non-conforming artists at the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937. Beckmann fled to Amsterdam where he survived a decade living in poverty, and trying in vain to obtain an American visa. An opportunity to emigrate to the U.S. presented itself when he was invited to St Louis as a guest professor in 1947. He gladly accepted and moved first to Missouri and then later to New York City where he continued to teach art.
Max Beckmann enjoyed three years in the United States before he died on the 27th of December in1950 of a heart attack while on his way to see an exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.