Max Beckmann is the great painter we keep forgetting about. Since his death in 1950, there have been major retrospectives of his work every 20 years or so. But the latest one, in 1984, traveled only to Los Angeles and St. Louis, Missouri. Now he has another, a smart and powerful exhibition that originated last year at the Pompidou Center in Paris, then hit the Tate Modern in London but has its sole U.S. venue at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens, New York, until Sept. 29. Too bad for every place else, because this is one of the indispensable shows of the year.
Beckmann's work doesn't fit easily into the approved history of modern art, in which the main lines move resolutely toward abstraction and for the most part pass through Paris and New York. There's not much room in that story for a German who all his life remained faithful to representational painting. All the same, he wasn't given to the atmospheres of Edward Hopper, dark and lovely as they are, much less the easy-to-read bloviations of Thomas Hart Benton. Beckmann's tangled allegories, his triptychs of bluntly contoured amputees and caged women, have a lot to say but say it slowly.
What Beckmann was, was a painter of history but not one who made pictures filled with public personalities or recognizable events. Primal scenes of degradation, yearning and exile were his specialty, complex reckonings with anxiety and grief. In his lifetime Europe would tear itself apart twice in world wars. And once the Nazis got wind of him, they put 10 of his canvases in their infamous show of "degenerate art" in 1937. The day after it opened, he fled Germany with his wife Quappi, first for Amsterdam, then, after the war, for the U.S., where he died of a heart attack at the edge of New York City's Central Park.
"The sole justification for our existence as artists," he once wrote, "superfluous and egotistic as we are, is to confront people with the image of their destiny." But first, where to find a visual language commensurate with the horrors seen and the ones to come? Even before the war, the Cubism of Picasso and Braque had been of little interest to him. But by 1914 Beckmann was a medical orderly in the trenches of Flanders. The Belgian front, where he suffered a severe nervous breakdown, would show him fractured form with a vengeance. Especially after the raw meat and blasted earth of the trenches, why care how you broke up goblets and café tables? Similarly, the Expressionist and Symbolist art of the prewar era, with its yearning toward transcendence, seemed now like an evasion of the duty to show the age its true, terrifying face.
In search of a usable tradition, Beckmann reached back to medieval art and to the Northern Renaissance. In the paintings of Lucas Cranach and Rogier van der Weyden he found the harsh modeling and angular postures that he would adopt as semaphores of anguish and terror. In the shallow-relief wood carving of Gothic Germany, compressed scenes full of jagged, beseeching figures, he found the flattened space for his own crowded dramas. Stained-glass windows showed him a world outlined with force.
These are the streams that Beckmann amalgamated in The Night, 1918-19, his first great attempt to come to grips with the demons at large in the European darkness. On the left, a man is hanged from a rafter while a mousy-looking torturer twists his arm. At center is a bound and broken woman. All this may refer to the suppression of Germany's postwar red uprising. (Is that Lenin holding the curtain at right?) But what we take away is flesh broken in nightmarish congestion. Near the lower edge of the canvas, a horn opens its red mouth and howls.
There are recognizable bits of Christian iconography in this picture, like the Christ-like open palm of the hanged man. But after the atrocities of the trenches, God seemed to Beckmann as about as irrelevant as Cubism. So he burrowed ever more deeply into a symbolism of his own devising. As a result, his greatest pictures can also be great puzzles. But his anthology of enigmas is a book you keep coming back to. þ