For him, life was a circus, and vice versa

20th-century German modern artist Max Beckmann often incorporated theatrical touches.

Sometimes it is helpful to understand the historical framework in which an artist lived. But while some viewers prefer to first see the art on its own merits and then read about its creator, they should make an exception for 20th-century German artist Max Beckmann. With him, revisiting his tumultuous era is an essential prerequisite.

Beckmann lived through two world wars, serving as an orderly in the first. During these conflicts, he endured the collapse of German and Dutch society and politics. He was labeled a "degenerate artist" by the Nazi regime. And he was rejected for a United States visa on his initial attempt to flee Europe in 1940.

Beckmann, a skilled portrait and figurative artist, had used art as an outlet to express family dynamics and life lessons. But after seeing the effects of war, art for him became a deep need.

His recurring themes on war and relationships, both personal and political, were first depicted as carefully arranged self-portraits and family portraits containing transitional and transcendent symbols. Some portraits included overt Christian imagery and format, such as triptychs. Others had subtler references, like ascension balloons.

Variation on Christian themes would return as Beckmann's work became more vivid, though he eventually found himself and his art immersed in the circus and cabaret environment. This theater metaphor had been a powerful draw for other Beckmann influences like Toulouse-Lautrec and Rousseau.

The world as vast stage with participants assuming identities and roles has influenced artists for centuries. Beckmann followed this tradition. Throughout his life, he continued to add a sense of whimsy and playfulness to profoundly serious situations, whether poverty, societal collapse, or family relationships.

Beckmann would depict men and women clambering over one another, as acrobats on a trapeze, or other performers. He would paint himself and his beloved wife and muse "Quappi" as clown and Pierette. Even the most expressive of his family portraits include a little something from the stage. His portrait of the Lütjens family (right) shows a husband and wife. Their young daughter dangles a clown marionette.

Beckmann found eventual happiness and peace after emigrating with Quappi to the US in 1947. A dealer promoted his work through a series of lithographs. He also became a professor of art at Washington University in St. Louis. Beckmann is now regarded as one of the most important figurative painters of 20th-century German art, and one of the greatest modern artists in the Expressionist tradition.

Max Beckmann is on view at Tate Modern, London, until May 5. It will be at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from June 25 to Sept. 30. For more information, go to www.tate.org.uk

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