Heaviness of Being

Man in Black: Beckmann's Self Portrait in Tuxedo (1927).Photo: Courtesy of MoMA

Few artists have asked as much of themselves as Max Beckmann. Unlike most other modernists, Beckmann (1884–1950) did not reject the high-flown aspirations of earlier painting but continued to make rich use of allegory, myth, and symbol. Always studious, even at his most passionate, he composed with traditional care. At the same time, he opened his art to the fierce dislocations of modernity, confronting the horrors of World War I and seeking out the forms of existential agony. According to Robert Storr, the curator of the retrospective Max Beckmann, which recently opened at MoMA QNS, the work of this German reflects nothing less than “the teeming modern city, the absurdity of human behavior, and the apocalyptic nature of human conflict.”

Beckmann, in short, shouldered responsibility. That may suggest why a burdensome heaviness, moral and metaphysical as well as painterly, suffuses his art. If most expressionist temperaments make work that is fiery or explosive—cathartic attributes that appeal to people—the brooding Beckmann rarely offers that kind of release. He does not hurl back the curtain or fling open the window. He is never graceful, light, or whimsical. (No painter could be less French.) Beckmann is instead unfailingly earnest and high-minded, even when he paints the beach. His own face and body, which he obsessively depicted, have the massive stolidity of a boulder. Not surprisingly, many find his art heavy-weather; of the major painters of the twentieth century, he is probably the least popular. He’s not my favorite, either, but I’m always fascinated by the remarkable sensation of weight he brings to a picture. There’s nothing else quite like it.

The retrospective at MoMA QNS—which is complemented by a survey of German Expressionist art at the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue—offers a full accounting of Beckmann’s achievement. Well before World War I, Beckmann was already drawn to disaster: He depicted the sinking of the Titanic. It was the horrors he witnessed during the war, however, that forced him into truly original work. Calling upon both Gothic art and Cubism, he created paradoxical pictures of visceral immediacy and allegorical distance. In his great series of drawings called “Hell,” he compressed Cubism until it almost shattered. The tight spaces create a powerful visual pressure, enlarging heads and distorting bodies. In The Night, which he made in 1918–19, Beckmann depicted an intellectual with a pipe directing the torture of a couple. The stockings of one victim resemble blood-soaked cloth. Even the light appears bruised.

The weight in a painting like The Night comes mainly from claustrophobic compression. The image does not fly apart but squeezes tight; an extraordinary passage of black in the picture sucks the forms inward like a black hole. In his later art, Beckmann generated weight in a variety of different ways. There was something heavy-handed in his allegorical intentions; his use of theatrical symbols, such as clowns, was freighted with “the meaning of life.” He also employed muscular shapes and rarely stinted on paint, which lies thick and loamy on the surface. But it was mainly as a master of black that Beckmann created his inimitable sensation of weight. His brawny blacks dominate, trap, and imprison. They resemble the leading in stained glass. But here, the lead controls the light.

If F. Scott Fitzgerald is correct that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” visitors to “Max Beckmann” should spend a few moments at the MoMA QNS show Andy Warhol: Screen Tests—“filmed portraits” Warhol made in the early sixties. Campy Andy and earnest Max are opposed ideas. Try to simultaneously hold in your mind Beckmann’s The Night and Warhol’s film of “Baby” Jane Holzer slowly unwrapping a stick of gum—it must have been Juicy Fruit—with her wicked tongue. Can you still function?

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Heaviness of Being