For painter Max Beckmann, the world was a stage


Death on the stage

The star of the exhibition is Beckmann's triptych, "Actor." It illustrates Beckmann's metaphor of "world theater." The king, who commits suicide on stage, has Beckmann's own facial expressions. It's a grandiose mélange of color, form and noise.


Boss of the 'Circus Beckmann'

Max Beckmann enjoyed depicting himself as a director and stage hand. As the exhibition "World Theater" in Bremen shows, he lived for the stage. This is also apparent in his self-portrait from 1921, titled "The Barker."


Carnival with Quappi

This picture is a declaration of love. After his divorce, Beckmann married the 20-year-old Mathilde von Kaulbach, known as "Quappi." In 1925, Beckmann was appointed to the Kunstschule of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, where the "Double-Portrait Max Beckmann and Quappi, Carnival" was painted. He wrote to his wife, "Our marriage picture will be beautiful. I always think of you and our picture."


Dancer as a symbol of political isolation?

A dancer practices the splits, struggling for balance. In Beckmann's bronze statue, "Dancer," from 1935, art experts see a counter-model of the Nazis' image of the ideal man. Does the work reflect the artistic and political isolation of the artist, whom the Nazis described as "degenerate"?


It's showtime!

A leg is lifted high while the music plays and the magician does magic tricks on the stage. Beckmann was enthusiastic about scenes like these. Here, he plays with perspective. Branded by the Nazis as a "degenerate artist," Beckmann fled to Amsterdam in 1937. There, he worked with abstract and figurative elements. This piece was painted in 1942.


A dangerous dance

Sad clowns, artists, actors and circus folk populate Beckmann's paintings and images. They often seem to walk on the edge of the abyss, like the pair of dancers depicted in this painting, title "Apache Dance." Painted in 1938, it's a commentary on the tense climate in Europe one year before the outbreak of the Second World War.

He once wanted to be a theater manager, a director and a stage hand. Then Max Beckmann became one of the most famous German painters of the 20th century. A Bremen exhibition highlights his lifelong love for the stage.

"Max Beckmann. Welttheater" (World Theater) is the title of the exhibition in the Kunsthalle Bremen which runs from September 30 through February 4, 2018.  

It features a collection of paintings, sculptures and other works by the 20th century painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950). The show is centered around his passion for theater, which began at the start of his artistic career in the 1920s and lasted until the end of his life in 1950.

Beckmann repeatedly painted images and characters from variety shows, circuses and fairs. Acrobats, dancing clowns and gesturing actors swirl throughout his paintings. Often, the artist painted himself amidst the action.

On display in Bremen are also theatrical texts from Beckmann's own pen. Although he sometimes painted portraits of actors, he primarily depicted scenes from life behind the curtains and on stage. The types of performers he painted ranged from tightrope walkers to acrobats on the trapeze to circus animals. Beckmann himself enjoyed attending masked balls and slipping into different costumes.

Read more: Max Beckmann work breaks auction record 

Theater as a commentary on the times

He was particularly close to the role of the clown, as his numerous self-portraits in clown costume suggest.

"Beckmann felt a duty to the people to be a reporter who could show social opposites," remarked exhibition organizers Eva Fischer-Hausdorf and Ortrud Westheider. "His works around the 'world theater' can also be read as a political commentary on his time."

Max Beckmann in Bremen, Selbstbildnis mit Saxophon, 1930

Self-Portrait with Saxophone (1930)

This societal commentary is apparent in a masterpiece borrowed from the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, USA: the 1942 triptych "Actor." The fact that Beckmann liked to use the metaphor of the "world theater" is clearly displayed in this work. The king, who commits suicide onstage, has the traits of the artist himself. Beckmann observed himself as an outsider as he continued to paint himself into his work. The blasé king leaving the stage of life represents the transition to Beckmann's so-called "fourth dimension, which I seek with all my soul." This wonderful three-part triptych is a grandiose melange of color, form and noise.  

The "World Theater” exhibition in Kunsthalle Bremen was developed in collaboration with the new Barberini Museum in Potsdam. The exhibition will eventually be shown there as well.


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