Max Beckmann rails against the world in almost every painting — but he never seemed to grasp what made him quite so angry, says Waldemar Januszczak
I have no arguments with this pat account’s conclusion. Damn right, Beckmann became one of the 20th century’s blackest painters. His unusually fierce performance in Tate Modern’s exemplary look-back at his career never lets up for a second, and comes at you jabbing and swinging like the young Mike Tyson. But this fierce show also makes clear that the received wisdom about Mad Max is essentially inaccurate. Beckmann didn’t need the war. He was born traumatised. Here is a man so overflowing with spluttering rage against his world that he would have found global anguish at a Buddhist prayer meeting. The anguish was his. He never left home without it.
The Tate survey opens its floodgates with a telling selection of early paintings produced long before Beckmann volunteered for medical work at the front in 1914. You can see him shopping around for styles. No shame in that. Most young artists do it. In 1905, when he was 19, he feigned a putative old-masterishness with a ludicrous scene of 20 nude men on an empty beach, standing, sitting, playing the pipes, and pretending, most unconvincingly, to be human gods. This is Mediterranean behaviour, and the German coast is too cold for it. By 1907 Beckmann had sneaked indoors and discovered the Bergmanesque family gloom that is endemic to the Baltic regions, with five haunted men and women posed silently around a darkened room while the clock, I imagine, ticks and tocks. Typically, and melodramatically, it is called Conversation.
What all this proves, immediately, is that Beckmann, born in Leipzig in 1884, is, from the off, almost cartoonishly Germanic in his angsts. He had a taste for panicky emotions. And this jejune appetite for turmoil climaxes in the opening room with a staggeringly ambitious vision of The Sinking of the Titanic. Although Beckmann has most of his career ahead of him, this turns out to be the largest picture in the show, 8ft tall, 10ft wide, an unreasonable expanse of crashing green waters in which snapped lifeboats and broken people are cruelly spin-washed. The Titanic itself, with its lights on, orchestra presumably blazing, can be seen at the top silhouetted against a thin sliver of brown sky. So can the iceberg.
As it happens, by the kind of pleasant serendipity to which Beckmann was allergic, the painting that inspired his Sinking of the Titanic — Géricault’s momentous Raft of the Medusa — is currently being celebrated over at Tate Britain in a show devoted to the British influence on French Romanticism. Called, so imprecisely, Constable to Delacroix, it’s a confused telling of a vague historical relationship. But it ends triumphantly.
Although the Louvre would not lend the actual Raft of the Medusa, the Tate folks have installed a splendid 19th-century copy, which, with large quantities of dramatic lighting, passes rather well for the real thing. Well enough, certainly, to show up Beckmann’s pretensions.
The reason why Géricault’s painting is a true masterpiece, and Beckmann’s a pretend one, is because Géricault has organised his picture to strike many notes. There is hope as well as despair among the survivors of the Medusa shipwreck, light in the sky as well as dark, stability on board as well as flux. The composition is as solid as an iceberg. Thus the Raft is a fabulously complex work. Beckmann’s Sinking, by contrast, is a shriek, and that’s it.
This one-note emotionalism turns out to be his preferred tone. The famous Beckmann, the one who spends the next 11 rooms of the exhibition working at malarial pitch, is never again guilty of what we might reasonably call development. As soon as the war is over, he becomes what he essentially stays, a provider of spiky black outlines for a fractured and turbulent view of the world, presented in dense and obscure allegories. Imagine a medieval stained-glass window chucked into a washing machine, and repaired by a cubist who hates everyone.
Which particular allegory does he favour? Well, my son, what have you got? There is hardly a slice of popular mythic terrain that Beckmann succeeds in resisting. After the war, his troubled id’s first port of call is Christianity, which has all its niceness sieved out of it, and is scarily reinvented as a skeletal war of the sexes. Adam and Eve are relocated to what appear to be some dunes outside Hamburg, in February, and a bald and spread-eagled Christ is manhandled from the cross like an awkward bit of luggage coming down off a luggage rack.
Everywhere Beckmann arrives he smells foulness and acridity. Yet not once does he think to look down to see what’s sticking to his own shoes. Self-knowledge isn’t his thing. Nor are changes of mood. The most popular of the allegorical torture chambers into which his uninvited imagination continuously gate-crashes is, alas, the circus, which has a gallery to itself, and in which he builds tottering towers of the usual clowns and trumpet players, scratching each other’s eyes out. Too many artists have noted too much angst at too many circuses over too many years for the image, these days, to avoid a sense of cliché. The moment the heresy enters your mind that life is actually not like a three-ringer, even the best work here becomes difficult to take entirely seriously.
His finest circus pictures are painted on tall thin canvases, whose unusual shape is borrowed from the side panels of medieval altarpieces. Inevitably, you feel, they are missing a central bit, and, sure enough, deep into the 1930s, when the political pressure in Germany was reaching busting point, Beckmann adds the missing middles to form a sequence of celebrated triptychs packed with mysterious mythological shenanigans. Fisher kings, Arthurian knights, biblical temptresses, Greek gods — if the kitchen sink were a myth, it would be in there. Frankly, I found all this mythological stamp-collecting a touch fraudulent, and was depressed to read Beckmann was yet another disciple of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of theosophy, which also inspired Gauguin, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee, Pollock, and which can therefore lay claim to being modern art’s single most influential supplier of hocus-pocus. I tired, too, of Beckmann’s relentless black outlining. The deeper into the show we go, the spikier it becomes. It’s like being communicated with entirely in underlined capital letters.
I enjoyed him most away from Blav- atsky terrain, in his creepy German street scenes, his recurring forays into posey self-portraiture, and the erotic celebrations of his second wife, the strangely named Quappi. Elsworth Kelly, in a curt catalogue essay, remembers Beckmann, as a visiting lecturer in America after the war, only being interested in the female students. In most of the tottering towers of myth there’s a flash of Quappi’s gorgeous breasts somewhere.
Beckmann finally relaxed when he got to Manhattan after the war. He posed for his own art in a bright blue sports jacket, and painted his brashest picture of a woman, a Venus of the Bronx with man-crusher legs, reclining on a sofa, a size-14 dame in a size-8 dress, straight out of Guys and Dolls. In exile, in his sixties, Beckmann seems to have found amusement and peace at last. A few months later, he was dead.