Sunday, October 28, 2007

Max Beckmann: Night (1918-19)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Below is one of the more disturbing images in the history of art, an expressionist masterpiece, Max Beckmann's Night, painted in 1918-19 and now on display at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Though a modernist, Beckmann (1884-1950) was something of a conservative early on, before the Great War (of which he was, like so many other artistic souls of the time, a delusional enthusiast), a member of the so-called Berlin Secession, an art association that opposed both state-sponsored traditionalism on one side and the more radical artistic movements of the time, such as the New Secession, on the other. What may now seem like splitting hairs was then cause for serious debate -- and this debate played out, among other places, in the pages of the magazine Pan in 1912, between Beckmann and Franz Marc, another giant of the expressionist movement.

You can find this debate reprinted in German Expressionism: Documents from the End of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism, edited by Rose-Carol Washton Long, an invaluable resource.

The basic question was this, as Marc put it: "[W]ho believes he is closer to the heart of nature, the Impressionists or today's moderns?" His response: "With all respect and deep love for the great Impressionists and plein-airists of the nineteenth century, we even believe that our current ideas of art have precedence in an older tradition and schooling just as much as any. Today we seek under the veil of appearances things hidden in nature that seem to us more important than the discoveries of the Impressionists."

In response, Beckmann referred to "this so-called new painting" as "wallpaper or a poster," hardly a compliment. Basically, it lacked "quality": "There is something that repeats itself in all good art. That is artistic sensuousness, bound up with artistic objectivity and the reality of the objects to be represented." Whereas Marc and "today's moderns" sought "things hidden in nature," and used their art to represent not so much outer reality as inner truth, Beckmann and the critics of the "new painting" promoted objectivity in terms of physical representation. Art must look like nature, Beckmann argued, and what is represented in art must look real. Not so, argued Marc, for there are truths that lie hidden beneath the surface.

At at time when art mattered -- socially, politically, historically -- this debate marked a dramatic confrontation of old and new. It meant something. Art may now spill over into the political world, or the political world may take notice of art from time to time, a controversy here and there, a sensationalized scandal now and then, but not for long, and nothing too serious -- but, generally, we have lost the sort of profound appreciation for art that drove not just artists like Marc and Beckmann but much of the world around them to engage in such spirited, and consequential, debates over the meaning and purpose of art.


The Great War changed Beckmann, as it changed so many others. In April 1915, he wrote to his wife: "For me, war is a miracle, though rather an uncomfortable one. It's fodder for my art." Later that year, having witnessed the horrors of the trenches, the mass slaughter, he suffered a breakdown. And, as Dietmar Elger writes in Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art, his art changed: "After the war, Beckmann did not resume the theme of large-format anonymous scenes of mass destruction. Instead, he began to concentrate on the individual and his powerlessness and helplessness in view of a world full of desperation and violence."

This is the context for Night: "the violence of the streets has entered the home." Elger: "Three bailiffs have invaded a little attic room and are now harassing a peaceful, helpless family." A man strangled, his arm being broken. A woman raped, collapsed. A child grabbed, soon to be molested. A mysterious woman in read in the background, looking on. "Beckmann clearly transformed the little attic room into a stage where the mystery of all mankind is represented by the suffering and the violence that were carried into this family. He himself stated that the artistic purpose of this painting was to "give mankind a picture of their fate".

We are a long way here from objectivity, "quality," representational realism. This is the new Beckmann, the Beckmann scarred by the war, aware of the darker elements of the human condition, and prepared to represent those elements in his art, all that is hidden rather than all that lies on the surface.

Given the horrors of our own time, domestic and foreign, state-sponsored and otherwise, war and crime, terrorism, government surveillance, torture, and the like -- given its universal theme, a representation of the violence of the human condition -- Night remains a work of astonishing relevance.


In 1937, the Nazis opened a Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. On display were about 650 works of art. About 20,000 people a day came to see it, and it went on to tour Germany and Austria from 1938 to 1941.

The purpose of the exhibition, according to the guidebook, was "to give a general insight, by means of original documents, into the dreadful final chapter of our cultural degeneration of the last decades before the great turning point." Hitler himself opened the exhibition, and, on the occasion, he said this: "From now on we will lead a relentless war of purification against the last elements of our cultural decay."

The exhibition included works by 112 artists.

Among them was Max Beckmann.

Labels: , , ,

Bookmark and Share


  • I've had subway rides like that...

    By Blogger Carl, at 8:40 AM  

  • It's interesting to see how German Expressionism seems as relevant now as it was in the horrible times that produced it. I can see how it echoes Bosch and presages Leon Golub.

    Interesting too, how the European right wing hated and misunderstood this kind of "decadent" art, preferring sappy, sentimental crap you find amongst Republicans - when you find any at all.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:16 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home