Max Beckmann’s “Self-portrait In Florence” (1907), “Self-portrait As A Medical Orderly” (1915), “SP With A Champaign Glass” (1919), “SP With A Red Scarf” (1917), “SP As A Clown” (1921), “SP With A Cigarette” (1923)

On my left was shooting and sharp explosion of infantry artillery, on my right could be heard the sporadic cannon shots thundering from the front, and up above the sky was clear and the bright sun.
Max Beckmann

In his “Artistic Confession” (1918) Beckmann wrote: “The deeper and more fiercely my despair about existence burns within me, the more determined I become, with lips tightly sealed, to capture the disgusting, throbbing monster of vitality, and to capture it, suppress it, even throttle it in crystal-clear, incisive lines and surfaces.”

Beckmann became the recorder of unofficial history – the nightmare of history, of a Europe gone mad with cruelty, ideological murder, and deprivation.
Joseph Phelan

In his 1938 lecture “On my painting”, Beckmann stated: “My dream is the imagination of space – to change the optical impression of the inner being… For the Ego is the great veiled mystery of the world… I believe in it and in its eternal, immutable form. Its path is, in some strange way, our path! And for this reason I am immersed in the phenomenon of the Individual, and I try in every way to explain and to represent it. What are you? Why am I? Those are the questions that constantly persecute and torment…”

Beckmann’s self-portraits were an attempt to define him as he struggled with the conflicts of the world. He came to believe that his moral purpose was to depict the horror of contemporary life.

As many as five hundred works by Beckmann were confiscated by the Nazis… After hearing Hitler’s speech on the radio (1937) in which he denounced modern art and referred to the “gruesome malfunctioning of the eyes of the artists”, Beckmann left Germany the following day for Amsterdam and never returned. His “The Night” (the analysis of which was posted here on July 6, 2009) – Max Beckmann’s “the Night”, Abu Ghraib and Symbolism Of Torture by Acting-Out Politics – is, perhaps a prophetic image of Hitler’s Germany, a society that, in Beckmann’s view, allowed itself to be tortured from within.

Max  Beckmann, “Self-portrait in Florence” (1907)
M. Beckmann, “Self-portrait in Florence” (1907)

We see Beckmann young, serious and harmoniously looking. And he is in Florence. But his gaze is already very heavy. Beckmann’s subject of annunciated (Beckmann within the painting) stares at the world with a mixture of extra-attentiveness and expectation of unpleasant surprises. His eyes are sad, as if, he already knows that his destiny (like that of many others) will be tormenting and traumatic, and nothing can be done about it. We can see in these eyes that he is irrecoverably with the world. Pay attention to the position of the cigarette in his hand – he surrenders his flame to the world.

Max Beckmann, “Self-portrait as Medical Orderly”, 1915
M. Beckmann, “Self-portrait as Medical Orderly”, 1915

Reality of the war is unbearable for Beckmann – it puts a horror in his gaze, but this horror is not naturalistic (fear of something dangerous from outside), it is a reaction not on the external terrors of war but on its demonic essence: on what is in human beings that makes war possible and desirable and makes young people prone to proudly carry in their hearts the militant narcissistic emotional bravura. Beckmann’s horror of war is a reaction mediated by his contemplative intelligence trying to grasp the human beings’ amazing attunement to war as a consequence of our emotional perversion and spiritual illness that normalizes it. It is with Beckmann’s gaze of disbelief that Americans with democratic sensibility react today on Zimmerman-ization/NRA-ization of the American psyche in the 21st century. But like Beckmann, in spite of his horror registers the seductive spell of war on the European population in his art, the democratic Americans today should be able not only feel indignant but think hard about the reasons for the cult of arms and violence in our country. Beckmann in his “SP as a Medical Orderly” describes war not just as a reaction on it by an artist as a human being but through refined segments of human mentality referring to an artistic sensitivity itself. As a subject of annunciated Beckmann looks at war as if in a mirror – he tries to register the basic role of impulsive fear as a trigger of phobic belligerency as exterminating drive. His hand is drawing/writing – the artist is trying to understand how wars are possible, why hate overrides self-preservation and why the pathos of intimidating, conquering and murdering, of dominating and manipulating, and desire to be on top and above others are the strongest stimulants of pleasure opened to human nature.

Max Beckmann, “Self-portrait with Champagne” (1919)
M. Beckmann, “Self-portrait with Champagne” (1919)

His whole life Beckmann had a very strenuous relations with people of “society” – socio-morphically oriented philistines: people occupied with consumerism, appropriation of property and propriety and with exhibitionistic secretion of social posing, those who are taking their high place in the social hierarchy much too seriously. These people with pathological fear of social bottom as a condition of being unprotected and denuded treat social hierarchy as a kind of peculiar armor. They are hierarchical freaks of human social nature. They need extra-money because money for them is their radical weapon. They laughed at the artist as the (marginal) outsider, a ludicrous extremist who “confuses the question of originality of a painterly style with metaphysical truth” and takes his artistic gift too simplemindedly and too fanatically. Much before the Nazis declared Beckmann a “degenerate painter” (not realistic, illegible for their childish minds and deviating from their taste for pop-magazines and Hollywood entertainment) he was an object of cheap gossip and judgmental persecution. The immense peculiarity of his painterly style made his haters feel challenged by the uniqueness of his artistic personality. Everything these people judge they have to put into hierarchical order, while Beckmann was too exceptional to be classified as “level” in hierarchy of artists. It was impossible to assess him based on collective taste in totalitarian (mass-cultural) society.

In “Self-portrait With Champagne” we see how Beckmann exposes himself to a hostile atmosphere with a stubborn desire to “beat it”, to be invulnerable, to stand his ground, be as he is in spite of “them”, to continue to develop his unique artistic paradigm despite their backbiting and continue to be critical of their society oriented on privileges regardless of who is in charge – Communist party, Nazi regime or neocon clique. We see him looking around by demonstrating that he cannot be touched by malicious animosity. He surrounds himself with three phallic attributes – a glass of champagne, cigar and champagne bottle, and with a mask of invulnerability on his face he tries to show them that in spite of their intrigues he is alive and so is his art work, that he is able to continue to work creatively. His manneristically bended at the wrist hand with cigar and his facial expression of mask-like invulnerability hiding accepted martyrdom, are, as if, proof of his well-being in an impossible world. But we can feel how much he is suffering inside, victimized for his artistic and intellectual originality.

Max Beckmann, “Self-portrait With Red Scarf” (1917)
M. Beckmann, “Self-portrait With Red Scarf” (1917)

Beckmann is horrified and infuriated by the very logic of “social survival/success”, its cowardly predatoriness, its cruelty and stupidity, by the fact that it blackmails him by the necessity to succeed over others (transform them into cheering crowd, to win over them by standard, hierarchical logic). We see him “in the corner” – in his studio, but this corner is in between, as if, two windows – one is a regular one, “naturalistic”, with cloudy sky, but the other is his creativity: metaphysical window: the canvasses he works on (windows to the unknown). We see two of his canvasses – one is with a plant, and the other with a steeple of a church, with sun and light. Nature and creativity are two refuges for creative artist, and he is cornered in between by the factual life and its established ideology of standardized success. Beckmann’s gaze is so overfilled with indignation that his left eye seems almost blind (so impossible it is to look at the world, but artist continues to look in spite of this impossibility). The red scarf is a signifier of being emotionally suffocated, and a sharp contrast between the wideness of the head and the sharpness of the chin creates the impression that the artist is telling the world some ferocious truth. In contrast between Beckmann’s widely positioned (scope of his gaze) and widely opened eyes and his spasmodically strained mouth we see a painful contradiction between a person’s orientation on understanding and impossibility to uninhibitedly express it.

In today’s “formal democracies” of mass “formalization” of arts where artists are losing their critical voice and existential concerns (the irrational feeling of responsibility for existing ways of societal life) because success of their careers depends on de-existentialization of artistic concentrations, Beckmann deserves to be a role-model-personified for those who are dedicated to artistic professions in a context of reality. When social power (intimidating critical voice) and consumerist obsession (orientation on social and financial success) unite they stifle artistic critical inspiration. Then the example of artists like Beckmann for whom art is not separated from existential sensitivity and (societal) life, from human pain and deep criticism of existing axioms of life, becomes an extreme cultural necessity.

Max Beckmann, “Self-portrait as a Clown” (1921)
M. Beckmann, “Self-portrait as a Clown” (1921)

Beckmann is conscious that his spiritual conflict with philistines who are ready to live under any regime including antidemocratic/totalitarian ones while continuing to fight for and enjoy their success and social status in spite of the suffering of others, is not without certain theatrical quality on his part, with its rhetorical component of stubborn resistance to the world as it is. Something in his pathos of non-conformism is similar with the style of his paintings – epic, grandiloquent, cosmic, as if, his fight is not only human but metaphysical, in no way just social and even cultural but something absolute. Beckmann is aware of the clownish side of his stance as a glorious outsider. And in spite of it and at the same time because of his ability as an artist to name/ express this side of himself as a part of his aesthetics, he as an artist got a unique vantage point as the one who tries to resist by any price. He shamelessly puts his personality, his vulnerability and Don-Quixote-ness as an ingredient of his aesthetics. And we are privileged to witness this unity of his narcissistic anthropomorphism and his aesthetics in his self-portraits. Do we have many artists today, in the 21st century, who are able to be non-conformists not only in their “artistic” paradigm, but simultaneously in their human position towards life? Look at Beckmann’s gesture addressing the world in his “SP as a Clown” by giving his veins to evil with a desperate and quiet intention of a martyr. How many artists today are able to stop to make their style salable to the tastes of the day instead of enjoying the perfume of their fame and success? The clown-martyr can be the pseudonym of Beckmann as a creator of art. The clown-martyr is more and more a dangerous stance for the artist of today, when “rational” conformism of the muffled or absent critical stance is the only way congruent with a successful career.

Beckmann, “Self-portrait with a Cigarette” (1923)
M. Beckmann, “Self-portrait with a Cigarette” (1923)

Subjective truth is a tough companion of a real artist (who dares to include his life into his creative work – who makes points personally, not through a purely aestheticized/ sterilized strategy). Resistance, as we see in this SP, takes its toll. The artist becomes rigid, ossified, petrified, as we see here. The rigidity is painful for the artist. It is unnatural for him as a creative person, and it makes him ill. The untimely death is the result. In his “SP with Cigarette” Beckmann is showing us the existentially cultural reason for his future death. And he is saying that it is okay, because that is the truth of creative/spiritual resistance, of creativity that is resistance.

The existentially spiritual one refuses to transform himself into a careerist super-star – a person who is creatively emaciated but socio-morphically bloated, whose talent is occupies with talented imitation of mediocrity. This resistance is the ultimate topic of Beckmann’s artistic life. The incompatibility between existentially-spiritually creative artist and repressive society is a traditional topic. What is new is the necessity to rediscover it in the 21st century in post-democratic societies habitually embellish themselves with decoys, cosmetic liberties in exchange for conformist/careerist adaptation.