Marion Marples

Max Beckmann at Tate Modern: a German who became a European

Max Beckmann was an ambitious artist; in 1912 aged 22 he tackled a huge chaotic canvas of the 'Sinking of the Titanic' based on the news reports.


He was able to paint in a range of styles but it was only after service as a medical orderly in the first World War that his own distinctive style of strong groups of figures, often in restricted spaces, began to emerge.

Tate's mainly chronological display is paused to show works from the 1920s and 1940s together, with 'Night' (1918) showing the torturing of a family in an attic looking back to his exploration of religious imagery of suffering and forward to darker and symbolic oppression. 'Birth' (1937) and 'Death' (1938) the focus is on the central rectangular bed or coffin, surrounded by a disturbing collection of austere bare boards and candles in the former, and nightmarish angels and the jaws of hell in the other.

His chief recurring image is the Carnival, with Columbine costumes, clown's masks, pierrot hats, musical instruments or performing animals. Far from conveying jollity, the menace grows.

Some more relaxed landscapes mark his time in bourgeois Frankfurt, and his style develops as he winters in Paris, engaging with Picasso, Braques and others. The latter rooms of the exhibition are watched over by many self portraits, which chart his growing stature as an artist. After his work was denounced by the Nazis in 1937 he left Germany forever and lived in Amsterdam, eventually emigrating to America in 1947. Here he continued to paint and teach. His final work, 'The Argonauts' (1950) is a good epitaph and summary of his work; he died the day after its completion.

Tate Modern, Bankside
• Wednesday 12 February to Monday 5 May, tickets 8.50/6 conc. Sunday-Thursday 10.15-18.00 (last admission 17.15), Friday & saturday 10.15-22.00 (last admission 21.15).

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