Life, as expressed by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, German, 1884–1950, Double Portrait 1946, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession Number 1989.348

A series of posts inspired by pieces in the collections of Boston area museums.

 

In 1938, in a lecture at the New Burlington Gallery in London, the German painter Max Beckmann said that “life is difficult, as perhaps everyone knows by now[1].” The difficulties of life, the powerful emotions of fear and anxiety, and the hopeless feeling that captures the soul, are all psychological traits present in the works of Max Beckmann and the artists of the Expressionist Movement, particularly The New Objectivity (neue sachlichkeit). The New Objectivity proposed a return to naturalism in painting and was in opposition to the obscure images of Expressionism.[2] Double Portrait (1946), at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston captures the social realities and the chaos of modern life; it pierces the viewer’s hearts and paints a world full of solitude while simultaneously offering a glimpse of hope for a better tomorrow.

Beckmann chooses as his subject matter two men, Hanns Swarzenski, a scholar of medieval art and curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Curt Valentin, a New York art dealer. Both friends of Beckmann, these two men have played a vital role in the development of Beckmann as artist. Engaged in a conversation, Swarzenski and Valentin, are both depicted wearing business attire, a detail that speaks of the distinguished backgrounds these two men come from. Double Portrait expresses to the fullest extent, “the power of [Beckmann’s] imagination[3]” since both of these subjects were not present in the same room for the painting, but it emphasizes the power of friendships in a time of crisis (such as the aftermath of World War II).

The composition of Double Portrait also plays a key role in expressing the context during which this painting was created. Beckmann places both figures diagonally in between an object that appears to be a table and an ambiguous window-like feature or mural showing a slight recession into space. The sharp angles of the object directs the viewer’s eye to Curt Valentin who holds a candle,  which further brings the eye to the figure of Hanns Swarzenski, who holds an Old Fashioned Glass. The placement of both of these figures on the canvas suggests a world in which oppression reigns, dreams are crushed and hope remains for those who long for better and peaceful times.

The world outside of this opening is a physically and psychologically cruel one, suggesting that the only life that is worth living, are the lives of Beckmann’s two friends; Hanns and Curt. With its somber shades of grey juxtaposed with the dark, oppressive (but yet seductive) colors of the interior space in which the two figures are placed, Beckmann expresses the uncertainties of the times as well as his psychological state of mind.

The physical and spiritual destruction of humanity, including the atrocities caused by World War II are emphasized by the hues of deep blues, purples, and black accentuated with splotches of green, red, gray and orange. Beckmann said in his lecture at the New Burlington Gallery, that “it is the dream of many to see only the white and truly beautiful, or the black, ugly and destructive. But I cannot help realizing both, for only in the two, only in black and in white, can I see God as a unity creating again and again a great and eternally changing terrestrial drama[4].”

The difficulties of life, the powerful emotions of fear and anxiety, and the hopeless feeling that detains the soul are all captured in Beckmann’s Double Portrait of 1946. The subject matter Beckmann chose to represent in Double Portrait speaks to the power of friendships in a time of crisis while the composition serves as a testament to the cruel realities of war and the oppression it forces upon humanity.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has a few amazing pieces by Beckmann. This one is currently on view.


[1] Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968), 189

[2] Tony Richardson and Nikos Stangos, ed. Concepts of Modern Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 48

[3] Ibid., 48

[4] Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968), 188

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