Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig. As a student in the cradle of Germany’s Enlightenment, Weimar, he read avidly the works of Schopenhauer and became interested in Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. Having graduated in 1903, he painted his early canvases in Paris. Cézanne particularly impressed him.
Beckmann’s own early work was in a broadly Impressionist mode and could sometimes be quite traditional in its composition and treatment of historical or monumental subjects. Beckmann retained through his life an instinctive feel for the art of the past, gravitating towards images and epochs in which he saw powerful and simple expression. As his own distinctive style developed, this took the form especially of a creative engagement with the art of the Middle Ages and the Northern Renaissance.
Beckmann remained aloof from Expressionism’s core groupings and the impassioned programmes they issued. In many ways he was never a true “Expressionist”. However, his work between the war years and the mid-1920s constitutes a major contribution to avant-garde German art and to the development – and decline – of Expressionism. Beckmann produced some of his most important work in the form of self-portraiture. The relatively naturalistic Selbstbildnis als Krankenpfleger (Self-Portrait as Medical Orderly) is an early example.
Beckmann painted it during the war, in 1915 when he worked for the Red Cross at the Belgian Front. His letters home to his first wife, Minna, reveal that he was fascinated by the comings and goings in the hospitals, overwhelmed by the flood of impressions and experiences on which he felt his art could “gorge itself ”.
However, by July of 1915, the intensity of war had become too much. Beckmann suffered a serious nervous breakdown and was discharged. In 1919, in the aftermath of the war, Beckmann visited Berlin. This was in March, at the height of the street fighting between revolutionaries and Freikorps. He responded to the chaos and violence in Germany’s cities with two of his most significant works of the period: his painting Die Nacht (The Night), and the portfolio of large lithographs entitled Die Hölle (Hell).
The “darkness” of his vision and the blackness of his humour as he surveyed contemporary Germany is inescapable in both works. The title page of Die Hölle has Beckmann – wearing a kind of jester’s collar – in a fairground booth. A signcuminscription announces that “Hell” promises us “a great spectacle in ten pictures”. Berlin had become a hellish and tawdry circus of the macabre. The first of the print series is Der Nachhauseweg (The Way Home.) It shows Beckmann himself, accompanied by a large black dog, conversing on the night streets with a disfigured soldier.
Here, as on other sheets, he uses the device of allowing elements in the picture (his shoulder, the dog’s lolling tongue) to extend beyond the picture’s confines. This amplifies the sense that his series of vignettes are real windows onto a contemporary hell. Subsequent sheets reveal the city as a place of fighting, hunger, torture and chaos.
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