Paul A. Lee, instructor in Humanities at M.I.T. former assistant to Paul Tillich and teaching fellow in General Education at Harvard, co-editor of the Psychodelic Review, Protestant Chaplain at Brandeis, and leader of the East House seminar on "Myth and Consciousness," is currently collaborating with Rick Chapman '65-3 on a book about the life and paintings of Max Beckmann.
"Never have I bowed to gain success; but I would wind myself through all the drains in the world, endure every humiliation and dishonor, in order to paint. That I must do. All conceptions of form living with me, must be released down to the last drop; then it will be a pleasure for me to rid myself of this cursed torture."
Max Beckman is dead, his life-history is past. But Max Beckmann is overwhelmingly present in the many paintings, woodcuts, and etchings which comprise his recently exhibited retrospective. This elaborate sampling (168 pieces) of Beckmann's half-century activity began its tour in Boston, and now moves to New York, Chicago, Hamburg, Frankfort, and closes at the Tate Gallery in London. This first comprehensive exhibition of his works to be seen in the United States since 1948 overpoweringly demonstrates Beckmann's acute self-awareness and his prophetic consciousness.
He was ruthlessly honest, both with himself and with the world around him. Seeing behind the masks which people assume as their identities, he realized, that life in all its mocking irony, inevitably takes on a stage-like quality. Beckmann lived at a time when the facade of "civil-ization"--the protective gloss which disguises man's nature--was blasted into pieces of human flesh by World War I. Beckmann suffered through the war, on the front as a hospital corpsman, and later in a hospital for two years, recovering from a nervous collapse. For Beckmann, the war was a rehearsal for the Apocalypse. In the torn bodies he carted away from the battlefront, he personally witnessed the horror and agony which announced not only the end of the nineteenth century but also the breakdown of Western Christendom. Thirty-four years later, suffering from the heart condition that would end his life, he wrote to his son: "Could it be...that my pains are still connected to the injuries of the soul I suffered during the war?"
Beckmann was not permanently crushed by the debacle of war but finally responded to what he had witnessed with a sense of mission: "Just now, even more than before the war, I feel the need to be in the cities among my fellow men. This is where our place is. We must take part in the whole misery that is to come. We must surrender our heart and our nerves to the dreadful screams of pain of the poor disillusioned people....Our superfluous, self-filled existence can now be motivated only by giving our fellow men a picture of their fate, and this can be done only if you love them."
As a result of the war, Beckmann had given up painting as an "unpardonable luxury," confining himself to the production of some twenty-four etchings. Toward the end of his convalescence, however, his passion to paint returned. The war had provoked in him a scream of horror, a scream of fear, a scream of rage, a scream of protest--a violent screaming of the senses which could only be resolved with colors and shapes on canvas. His painting of the "Descent from the Cross" (1917), showing the removal of a hopelessly abject and skeletal Jesus by two men grimacing with revulsion, sums up his post-war mood: "Humility before God is done with....My pictures reproach God for his errors."
More than any other artist with the exception of Rembrandt, Beckmann uses his painting as a means for confronting himself, for actualizing his awareness of his individual destiny: My way of expressing my Ego is by painting...as a painter, cursed or blessed with a terrible and vital sensuousness, I must look for wisdom with my eyes."
Relentlessly probing his own consciousness, he tries to fulfill his vow to give his fellow men a picture of their fate. Beckmann's numerous self-portraits testify to his preoccupation with defining his identity, allowing us to share in these moments of self-confrontation. He began to draw himself at an early age--his 1898 "Self-Portrait with Soap Bubbles" is an idyllic scene of the fourteen-year-old Beckmann, facing sideways, blowing soap bubbles across a whole countryside of space. This leisurely, carefree, open stance does not fit him for long, for within three years he produces the 1901 drypoint self-portrait, showing himself poised in a scream. All the features of the face in this self-portrait work together to vent this scream--all except the eyes. The drawn muscles of the face, the stretched mouth, the twisted lips and the lines in the forehead leading down past the nose--express a sensitive adolescent's wild and frustrated response to a confusing world. But the eyes are open and alert, as if Beckmann is seeing himself apart from himself, viewing his face as a mask. He captures a vision of himself, not "through a glass darkly, but face to face, even as he is seen." Beckmann makes visible and concrete, his clusive identity, his inner self: "If you wish to get hold of the invisible, you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible. My aim is to get hold of the magic reality and to transform this reality into painting....It is reality which forms the mystery of our existence." Reality for Beckmann is just that which cannot be seen, the hidden, intangible destiny which works itself out in the lives of men.
The most surprising self-portrait in the show is Beckmann's depiction of himself at twenty-three as the young aesthete. Standing before a window overlooking Florence, his pose is archly self-critical. The effeminate position of the hand, the soft, glistening, sensual mouth and the almost humorous defiance and cynicism of the worldly young man, set the stage of his subsequent quest for what he perceptively refers to as "male mysticism."
By contrast, the "Self-Portrait in Tuxedo," painted in 1927, radiates unprecedented self-conscious affirmation. Here stands Beckmann in a piercingly direct encounter with himself and with the viewer. In an effort to counterbalance the fluidity of his development, indicated by the amazingly protean variety of his many self-portraits, he takes a stand as absolutely assured, solid, immovable. In the midst of the uncertainty and change which prevails around and within him, he captures forever on canvas the transitory element in himself. Permanence, solidity, self-confidence--to these qualities, so precious and so rare in everyday existence, he give lasting shape.
In "Tuxedo," Beckmann again holds a cigarette, his hand set in a masculine gesture powerfully contrasted with that of the young aesthete. The viewer's attention oscillates between the hand and face, but here the face is full and sculptured. The head is patterned with darkness--the strange lighting gives it a mask-like quality--but light is shining on him obliquely, illuminating his side, giving a hnt of underlying self-awareness. This portrait haunts the entire show like a spectre, standing over the work of a life-time as the finest embodiment of Beckmann's genius.
In these moments of the self-portrait, Beckmann comes to grips with his own inner space and manages to fill up the horrifying area surrounding him:
"Oh, this infinite space! We must constantly fill up the foreground with junk so that we do not have to look in its frightening depth. What would we poor people do, if we would not always come up with some idea, like country, love, art, and religion with which we can again and again cover up that black hole. This limitless solitude in eternity. Being alone."
Beckmann painted "Self-Portrait with a Cigarette" in 1950, the year of his death. Here he steps back from the overpowering stance of the "Tuxedo." He averts his eyes, as if from his immediate presence to a meditation on his past, in a review of all of the various stages of his life history captured in his previous self-portraits. This is his last. He stands before an empty canvas, smoking to a finish the cigarette which he has always held before him, the symbol of transitoriness, burning to an end. Beckmann is dying.
The historic stature of the artist in his tuxedo has shrunken, a near-cadaver fills his loosely-fitting clothes. He is propped and cramped by the chair at his side. His face has grown less well defined--his once fleshy nose now skeletal cartilage--the light now emanates from his forehead. Pensive and intent he listens for the end. He reflects upon his life in what will be his last self-portait. This man courageously and resolutely wrestled with the terrible angel and himself: "Perhaps then we can find ourselves, see ourselves in the work of art. Because ultimately, all seeking and aspiration ends in finding yourself, your real self of which your present self is only a weak reflection. There is no doubt that this is the ultimate, the most difficult exertion that we poor men can perform."