Beckmann: grandeur but not greatness

True greatness missed Max Beckmann (1884-1950) by no more than a whisker. That didn't prevent him, however, from becoming an extraordinarily powerful and original painter and printmaker and one of the major figures of 20th-century art. Were Michelangelo and Rembrandt to return to earth today, Beckmann, I'm convinced, would be one of the very few modernists they would understand and respect. They might be shocked by his pictorial distortions, but they would recognize the depth, grandeur, and significance of his creative vision and accomplishment.

Most of all, they would understand his insistence that art is serious business, that its function is to give symbolic and metaphorical form to its culture's deepest and most dynamic ideas and issues, and that its primary responsibility is to speak the truth, no matter how painful that truth might be.

How well he obeyed his own mandate can be seen in the St. Louis Art Museum's major exhibition of his work currently on view here. The ''Max Beckmann Retrospective'' covers his entire career from 1900 to 1950; it includes a large number of his outstanding paintings and most of his important prints. There would have been more of the former had space and expense not forced trimming the show from its original size when shown in Munich and Berlin earlier this year. But no matter, the exhibition as it stands is clearly first-rate, and of such quality and interest that it will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the outstanding events of the 1984-85 art season.

Beckmann's career started off with a bang. He received honors while an art student at the Weimar Academy; won the coveted Villa Romana Prize (which permitted him to study in Florence for six months) when he was 22; started to exhibit seriously in Germany a year later; and had begun to establish a solid reputation for himself as a facile, essentially academic painter by the time he was 25.

All that ended, however, with World War I. His experiences as a medical orderly with the German Army devastated him, causing him to reexamine everything he had previously taken for granted. His art, in particular, underwent a dramatic transformation, becoming increasingly more biting, stark, and confrontational. The change was swift and total. The difference between ''The Sinking of the Titanic'' of 1912 and his ''Adam and Eve'' of 1917 does not so much represent creative growth as a profoundly serious and final decision to strip his art of all academic veneer and rhetoric and to make it a burning, uncompromising vehicle for his new (and much more painful) perception of human reality.

During the early 1920s, Beckmann's canvases became more complex and allegorical. Many of them projected a carnival-like atmosphere, with clowns, acrobats, and everyday citizens performing strange and often visually provocative aerial feats in compositions as rigidly structured as those by any of the Cubists. By the late 1920s, however, things began to loosen up. His technique became more brusque, his colors intensified, and his compositions became increasingly more compact. ''The Harbor of Genoa'' (1927) represents the turning point. It is one of the first works in which the Beckmann the world knows best makes his appearance, and he does so in a manner that is totally direct and uncompromising.

By 1930, Beckmann's art had achieved full maturity. Unfortunately, the outside world was once again about to interfere, this time in the person of Adolf Hitler. He saw to it that none of Beckmann's pictures would ever again hang in German museums, and in 1937 he confiscated 590 of his works. Fearing the worst, Beckmann fled to Amsterdam on the day Hitler's infamous ''Degenerate Art'' exhibition opened, and he remained there until 1947, when it became possible for him to move to the United States.

He worked furiously during this entire period, producing some of his finest and most effective pieces during the decade he lived in Holland. The magnificent triptych ''Acrobats'' was painted there, as were ''Birds' Hell,'' ''In the Circus Wagon,'' and ''Children of Twilight - Orcus.'' Taken together, these four canvases represent Beckmann at his very best. Should art history decide at some future date to present him with the mantle of greatness, it will almost certainly be these pictures - along with a dozen or so others - that will be the determining factor.

It is difficult to write dispassionately about an artist whose major works - in this case, several triptyches, a self-portrait or two, and a handful of allegorical canvases - have filled one with awe from the time they were first seen several decades ago. Unlike so many successful artists of our day, Beckmann is truly worthy of respect. He may have lacked the genius of Picasso and Matisse , been uninterested in modernism's formalist debates, and been a bit heavy-handed at times. Yet he was larger than life and in many ways served as the conscience of his age in art.

Beckmann cared, and he made that caring the leitmotif of his art. He never forgot, on the other hand, that he was an artist and not a polemicist. Art came first, not because it was a perfect answer to an imperfect world, but because it was the best way to communicate the complexity and importance of what he felt.

To violate the laws of art for more immediate effect would have demeaned what he knew to be true; but on the other hand, the horrors of war had taught him that those laws had to be adapted to represent more fully 20th-century perceptions and realities. And so he stripped down and modified his art. The results were blunt, shocking, and totally to the point - so much so, in fact, that when Pop Art and Minimalism came to the fore in the late 1950s and '60s, his art was dismissed by many as too heavy and serious, even too melodramatic. With the recent rise of Neo-Expressionism, however, Beckmann has once again become a hero and an example for younger artists wanting to say ''big'' things in the most direct way.''

After its closing at the St. Louis Art Museum Nov. 4, this excellent and important exhibition goes to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from Dec. 9 to Feb. 3.

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