DYou can see from an old suitcase that it has been through a lot. Its lock is rusty, the Louis Vuitton pattern scratched and worn. According to the remains of the sticker, he was on board when Max Beckmann and his second wife Mathilde, known as Quappi, left for America in 1947. Finally, “locked up after 10 years”, as the artist outlines the exile in Amsterdam in his diary. The couple fled after the confiscation of Beckmann’s works by the Nazis and the defamation of his paintings in the “Degenerate Art” show. In Holland they had actually only wanted to make a stopover before the big passage, but got stuck due to visa refusals. “Of course, maybe I will see other countries…”, he continues, “but I will only have this departure once in my life.”
Beckmann’s large triptych “Departure” had already left before him; it had hung in the New York Museum of Modern Art since 1942 and increased the German painter’s fame in the United States. Between the side wings with somber scenes of violence and torture, the departure motif in the center shows tall, upright figures, which a boat drives out into the bright blue expanses of sea and sky. Beckmann was painting on it when he was stripped of his professorship in Frankfurt in 1933, but it seemed like a foreshadowing of what was to come.
The “Departure” borrowed from New York to Munich, the suitcase and the diary lead to the center of the large Beckmann exhibition in the Pinakothek der Moderne, which succeeds in telling really new things about him and his oeuvre, which has been so intensively researched as few others. With thirty-seven paintings, the Bavarian State Painting Collections have the largest Beckmann collection in Europe. With the Beckmann archive, they look after a treasure that was further enriched by the donation of the family estate in 2015.
Tight-lipped man with a big head
From passport photos to suitcases, from albums and holiday films to hotel bills, from sketches, including those drawn by Quappi, even to Beckmann’s library, this fund, according to the curators, opens up the possibility of freeing Beckmann from the cliché of the gloomy, inaccessible artist. This image earned him not only his heavy-blooded, mythically encoded paintings with their black, leaden-like contours, those works with which he found his own special way from the twenties onwards, parallel to cubism and abstraction, which he rejected, as well as to the New Objectivity, which he called an “unimaginative and flat form of representation”.
In fact, self-portraits and photographs show him as a tight-lipped man with a large head and strong build, who looks distant, almost grim, in a static pose. Now you get to know someone who is driven by restlessness and curiosity. The urge to move and wanderlust made the youngster want to join an Amazon steamboat, no wonder he loved Joseph Conrad’s books. Beckmann became a lifelong traveller, whether for pleasure or by force.