Max Beckmann The Old and the New

Beckmann (1884-1950) is a painter, who was well established in the art world, and who many say is one of the most important to modern German painting(1). He is one of my favourites; however the work I’m interested in is from the earliest times of his art career (1898-1919)(2). Perhaps this may be where critics may differ from me, as most of the discourses that I have looked at consider his later works in more detail, nevertheless, I shall be comparing one of his earlier works (Self-Portrait 1901(3)) with the views of other critics on the work to my own as well as considering the difference in this piece to later works nearing the end of Beckmann’s life.

In terms of his career, Beckmann started early; his first work Self-Portrait with Soap Bubbles was from around 1890 – 1900(4), but this was from his seemingly natural determination, which is evident across his works. However during his late twenties – early thirties he enrolled as a Medical Orderly in the First World War(5), an experience that will change his artwork forever. As not only did being in the War itself affect Beckmann, but the stance of Nazi Germany in relation to Art itself was changing, and this caused many problems for Beckmann.

As I mentioned earlier I wish to talk about Self-Portrait 1901, in terms of style and vision; it differs greatly from the other well published works, he was around 17 at the time, and was studying at the Weimar school of art in Germany(6). The piece is a dry-point of the young Beckmann’s face, mouth gaping open, nose curled up in a snarling manner, with lots of emphasis on creases in the face and the dark parts of the picture. The only real problem I see in it is that it looks relatively obvious that Beckmann is looking in a mirror to observe himself as he draws, as the eyes are not directly looking at the viewer and do not seem to contain as much expression as the rest of his face. However none of the critical discourses on this work mention this technical slip up here, considering it from a different angle, it may be that Beckmann was just a lot more concerned with the conveyance of expression, but despite this the engagement of the eyes with the viewer would have added to this greatly.

Sister Wendy Beckett (Beckmann and The Self, Prestel-Verlag, 1997(7)) considers Beckmann’s portrait as ‘... screaming, either with mirth or with wrath, or with an extremity of pain, and the art is in his skill ... but we admire the skill that captured the tension of the cheeks and the furrowed brow.’(8) However I differ slightly from this point of view as I am not convinced of a screaming adolescent from any angle that I look at it. As I mentioned earlier his mouth seems to be gaping open, and it looks more like his hissing in putrid hate than screaming. Though this could be seen as more of a subjective take on ones expression, I see it as very possible that it was his intent, as looking at his works as a whole, there is an inherent theme of containment and discomfort in his self-portraits. I agree with Beckett in terms of art being recognised in the skill, as this is one of the main reasons I really admire this picture, and although I do not necessarily admire the skill in the cheeks and brow, I do appreciate the sense of detail the picture has as a whole, and yet this may be more because of the way line has been used to compose the entire piece. Peter Selz also puts forward a view of the piece as being a scream and a ‘stylized grimace’ relating it to Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s bronze ‘character heads’.(9), though I interpret Selz’s comment as Beckmann’s attempt to put forward a severe expression. Though I took a look at Messerschmidt’s figure heads and apart from being startled and a little humoured, at such old work that could have been passed off as a modern mockery of traditional figure heads, they did hold a remarkable resemblance to Beckmanns ‘Self-Portrait’. In particular The Yawner(10), which looks precisely as named, holds the same open mouthed expression; the only difference is the eyes on the model are shut.

Beckett also comments on Beckmann’s admiration for the early Rembrandt and how this shows in ‘Self – Portrait’(11). Earlier in Beckmann and The Self, she compares Beckmann’s interest in Self-Portraits to that of Rembrandt, saying ‘But for Rembrandt, as for Beckmann, studying his own likeness was a lifetime’s occupation, pursued not for pleasure but out of interest.’(12) I looked at the work pictured within Beckmann and The Self (Self-Portrait 1629)(13), and even though their use of tone are the same, Beckmanns self-portrait is a lot more profound, and expressing than Rembrandt. So far the only similarity I’ve found between them is that of self portraiture.

She also makes a note on the seemingly non-recognisable face that Beckmann wears in the piece. In consideration of the pieces before and after ‘Self-Portrait, 1901’ Beckmann has a changeable face in his self-portraits anyway, and it is only in 1904 that we see the Beckmann we have come to recognise today(14). It may be possible that he was just trying to find a stance in which he felt comfortable, and even more sensibly, the most honest and natural. The earliest photograph taken of Beckmann was when he was twenty-three years old(15), and in it you can see the same blank expression that conceals so much but reveals volumes at the same time in his work. However ‘Self-Portrait, 1901’ holds the most refined likeness out of his early works, and it also seems that due to concerns with expression, he wasn’t as inclined to hide his face as in the other portraits of this time period.

It is clear enough that significant changes happened to Beckmann during his art career, and in comparison to work at the beginning and the end, the difference is paramount. In the beginning, Beckmanns work is still relatively severe in terms of expression; however it holds a kind of delicacy that resembles someone tenderly exploring a new area. Contrasting this to work of his later years, for example Self-Portrait with Cigarette, 1947(16), gone are the soft details that refined the expression, and we arrive at strong colours and thick merciless lines that almost have purpose simply to imprint themselves into the consciousness. The only facial expressions we come to are that of stone, averting their gaze as if to avoid any further scrutiny, and severe light and dark as if to emphasise a singed mind.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Beckmann enrolled as a Medical Orderly in the First World War. Before this time, his work was destined for a softer expressionistic future, colours seem happier, and there are no solid lines that stake out territories of space. During his service, Beckmann eventually had a nervous breakdown and was relieved of his duties(17). His artwork after this became severely twisted, and principles of form that he had grasped before, were now completely disregarded, and instead, attempts to stand on his feet again were sought. Here we begin to see the Beckmann we know today, his artwork at this time is still changeable but the themes of severe dislike of the world and a feeling of detachment from reality are beginning to take centre stage, and the focus shifts from using his own face as an object to the items and the positions surrounding his face, in which the latter remains frozen and expressionless. Going even further into his career, the works get bolder, almost more primitive, more black is used, and thick lines begin to encroach on the pieces, as if he’s trying to say ‘we don’t need to see an act of human replication, we’re here to see the mockery that is human existence’.

In the end we will all always have a different take on an artist’s work, but for me it will always be about his early work, especially ‘Self-Portrait 1901’, as I find that his severity is better seen here rather than his stain-glass window-like painting of later years. His changes are because of the severity of the war, his nervous breakdown, the Nazi’s taking a dislike to his expressionistic art, and finally, the fact that his refuge from all of this was retreating into one self, detaching from civilisation almost in order to stay sane.

End Notes:

1. See Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann, Memories of a Friendship, University of Miami Press, 1969, front flap.

2. See Sister Wendy Beckett, Beckmann and The Self, Prestel-Verlag, 1997, time frame worked out from selected works (see pg 12 – 35).

3. See Beckmann and The Self, pg 15.

4. See Beckmann and The Self, pg 11, print of painting on pg 12.

5. See Beckmann and The Self, pg 25 – 28, “I am quite pleased there is a war”.

6. See Friedhelm W. Fischer, Max Beckmann, Phaidon press Ltd, 1973, pg 5.

7. See Sister Wendy Beckett, Beckmann and The Self, Prestel-Verlag, 1997.

8. See Beckmann and The Self, “To find one’s ‘self’ is the driving force behind all characterless souls.” pg 13.

9. See Peter Selz, Max Beckmann, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1964, pg 9.

10. See

11. See Beckmann and The Self, “To find one’s ‘self’ is the driving force behind all characterless souls.” pg 13.

12. See Beckmann and The Self, “If you wish to get hold of the invisible, you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible”, pg 8-9.

13. See Beckmann and The Self, “If you wish to get hold of the invisible, you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible”, pg 8.

14. See Beckmann and The Self, “To find one’s ‘self’ is the driving force behind all characterless souls.” Portraits from pg 12 – 17.

15. See Beckmann and The Self, “To find one’s ‘self’ is the driving force behind all characterless souls.” pg 13.

16. See Beckmann and The Self, Biographical Notes, pg 101.

17. See Beckmann and The Self, “I am quite pleased there is a war.” pg 26.


Beckett, Sister Wendy. Beckmann and The Self. Prestel-Verlag, 1997.

Fischer, Friedhelm W. Max Beckmann. Phaidon Press Ltd, 1973.

Lackner, Stephan. Max Beckmann, Memories of a Friendship. University of
Miami Press, 1969.

Selz, Peter. Max Beckmann. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964.

Works Mentioned:
Beckmann, Max. Self-Portrait with cigarette, 1947. Oil on canvas, (63.5 x 45.5cm). Beckmann and The Self, pg 101. Dortmund, Museum am Ostwall.

Beckmann, Max. Self-Portrait with Soap Bubbles, 1898-1900. Mixed media on pasteboard (32 x 25.5cm). Beckmann and The Self, pg 12. Private Collection.

Beckmann, Max. Self-Portrait, 1901. Dry-point (21.8 x 14.3cm). Beckmann and The Self, pg 15. Private Collection.

Messerschmidt, Franz Xaver. The Yawner. (model). circa 1778-1783.

Rembrandt. Self-Portrait 1629. Oil on canvas. Beckmann and The Self, pg 8. Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemalde-sammlungen, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst.

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Comments (1)

  1. dakotawoodbury

    In my life art is really important it is part of my daily life and I cannot even think about it living without it and it is recommended by to support the artist because they really need your appreciation in their life to achieve the position of a great artist

    June 28, 2017