Reflecting Darkness: Max Beckmann (Part I)

This will be one of the Big Postings, and so there will be two of them, most likely.  There are plenty of mirrors in the paintings of Max Beckmann, different ones in different periods of his life, and many of them are very interesting and original.  In many ways his mirrors have reflected not only his own complex life trajectory, but the world developments around him, too. His late mirrors are reaching the existential depth and the level of symbolism inherent to the works of Bosch and Flemish mannerists, and yet I find very few accounts, if any, that would address this dimension of his paintings.  

It does not mean that I would necessarily address them myself, at least, not from the beginning. I found that when an artist created many ‘mirror works’, my first postings about them rarely go deeper than mere descriptions and cataloguing them. I guess, it will be the case with Beckmann too, so, ‘ fasten your seatbelts’, the drive may be long and bumpy in the beginning.

Because of this name, many people think that Max Beckmann is an Englishman (I met such people myself, and failed to convince them otherwise, in the absence of the Internet, that is).  In reality he was as German as one could be, his full name is Max Carl Friedrich Beckmann.

He was born in Saxony, in a small town near Leipzig, in a relatively wealthy family (he was a traders, of real estate and also of flour, if I understand correctly the translation of Germans Mühlenagentur). He was very well educated, and lately often surprised his contemporaries with his erudition. If he would live today, he would most likely be labeled as ‘Asperger’ or even sociopath, but back then they didn’t use such words. He was often described as having a tendency to depressive reactions to the events, mixed with ‘bad temper’.

Beckmann began to draw very early, first by pencil, and then with water colours, and his studies were encouraged in the family. His father died when the boy was just ten years old, and of course his decision to pursue professional career of an artist should be faced with some tension, but fortunately his mother has approved it as well.

This is one of the earliest survived works by Beckmann, his own self-portrait when he was just 17. Some compare it with the famous early self-portrait by young Rembrandt (and later Beckmann will be often compared to this famous Dutch painter, because of equally large number of his own self-portraits he would create):

Beckmann will be compared to many other painters, too, and there are indeed many traces of the influences from many artist in his works; he was an erudite, including visual erudite, very well familiar with the works of many old masters and eagerly exploring the works of his contemporaries.

However, I tend to think that Beckmann always had his own way of seeing the world, and depicting it in his own unique way, and that he got this own personal vision very early. Yes, he was sensitive to the works of others, but somehow always perceived them from his own lenses, as if observing the world from his own bubble, and ultimately creating his own unique world, different from any other -isms.

Self-portrait with soap bubbles (c.1900)

Speaking about -isms, Beckmann is traditionally described as one of the ‘German Expressionists’ (who he actually disliked and tried to distance from), or sometimes as a fauvist, the follower of Gauguin and Matisse (and later, Picasso). Beckmann knew about these artists, and highly valued their works, but in no way he can be seen as their ‘follower’, in my opinion. In general, his works are causally assigned to the ‘new’ and ‘avant-garde’ art, despite the fact that he himself saw them as a straight extension of the classical realist art (and viewed many of the avant-garde developments, especially abstract art).

If to leave all these labels asides, he obtained good, ‘classical’ art education, first in art-schools in Leipzig and Weimar, and then in Berlin, where he studied in the Academy of Arts. I will show just a few of his earlier works, to present the ‘before’ situation (and to later see better the level of ‘after’).

For example, these three sea landscapes show that he was capable to use three very different styles (just keep in mind that these are not small drawings, but large, 1m-wide paintings.

Dune landscape (1904)

Sunny sea (1905)

Large grey waves (1905)

And here is another example of his early work, also very large and quite complex for a young artist. It is believed that the old woman on this painting resembles Beckmann’s mother who died in 1906, two year before the completion of this work.

Unterhaltung (1908)  180 x 170 cm

Beckmann wasn’t a ‘religious’ painter in any sense, but Christian motifs and direct Biblical scenes can be often found in many of his works. Here is his early Crucifixion, for example:

And here is his giant, 2,5 x 3 meter canvas depicting the death of Titanic :

Sinking of Titanic (1912)  265 x 330 cm

I have recently found a photograph showing the young painter with this colossal work; it looks like he was never too shy with the scale of his creations.

To display many of his works, museums would need to arrange special rooms, or halls, so large they are.  Below is his Battle (1912)

Looking at all these works, we shouldn’t assume that Beckmann was moving closer and closer to what we tend to narrowly define as ‘realism’. He continued to experiment with many other styles, creating both landscapes and portraits. Here is his Singer in Red (1910):

And this isThe Yellow Mask (1910):

Interestingly, but the last two works are not just from one year, these are two sides of one panel (notice also the mask, the motif that will be appearing very often in his later works).

At this place we need to dray a very bold and dark LINE

that changed many things, almost everything in his life, and in the lives of many people around. If the earlier shown Battle was rather metaphorical, then after 1914 he had to go through very real battles of the first world war.

In the end of 1914 Beckmann signed the German as a volunteer and was sent to the Belgium front as a medical brother. Similar to many other people, Beckmann had experienced a total shock when confronted with the horrible realities of the war. He participated in a few large battles, in including the one for Ypres where Germans used chemical weapon first time in war history. After less than half a year he was demobilised and sent to a clinic in Frankfurt to recover.

Even during the services he continued to draw, creating the sketches of the war scenes, and then in Franfurt he re-started to paint, too. This is his self-portrait made in the late 1915:

Here Beckman depicted himself as of making sketches during a surgical operation, but it can also be seen as a portrait of a painter looking in the mirror (which could be also said on almost all his self-portraits).

But he was indeed making many sketches while on front, trying to capture horrible moment of war. Here is his Morgue made in the beginning of 1915:

Das Leichenhaus (1915)

And this is Grenade:

Die Granate (1914)

Here I would point to the ‘eyes’, full of pain and suffering. I can track their appearance in many of the later works by Beckmann to this earlier sketch. Was it a life-long session of art-therapy.

And this is another horrible scene; officially it’s called Night, but as we can see, something very bad is happening here: an injury? or a torture? a murder, perhaps?

Beckmann will come back to this scene after few years, and after a series of different drawings will create his first large ‘Bad Painting’ (that’s my description) also called The Night (1918):

It’s very visible that the style of the work is different from all that we have seen before (if to use any -isms, we can define it as a work of cubism, but as often happens with Beckmann, it’s more than that). General composition, anatomy, colours  – everything here is hanged on the racks, so to speak, compared to the earlier works by the artist. Post-traumatic stress disorder in oil on canvas. We could see it as an attempt to follow Bosch – only it wasn’t a following, but an intrinsic evolution of Beckmann’s own worldview.

The man in cap in the upper right corner is sometimes interpreted as Lenin, but it seems to me too far a stretch. Beckmann has always been very a-political. It doesn’t mean he didn’t know about the political developments around him, he did, but by all possible means he tried to keep them at bay from his own creative world.

I have seen this painting ‘alive’, so to speak, it is currently in the Museum Folkwang in Dusseldorf, and it does convey very heavy and painful feeling.

And this is his portrait made in the beginning of 1917. It shows a very different person, and made already in a very different style, compare to the works made just two years earlier.

To illustrate this difference one more time, I can also show one Crucifixion by Beckmann, painted in 1919 – compare it yourself with the work made ten years before (see earlier in this post) and you will see how much his style has changed.

Because of this sharp, edgy, almost aggressive brushwork Beckmann is often assigned to the art school broadly defined as German Expressionism (Kirchner, Otto Dix, Kokoschka and many others). To the extent possible Beckmann always resisted all these attribution; he has never been a member of any art movements, such as Die Brücke or Blaue Reiter, and in general reviewed many of the works of this school quite negatively, especially those leaning toward abstractionism.

Anyway, time to move the ‘mirrors’.

The very first mirror of Beckman appeared in his painting called The Family (1920) (and it is the mirror that I used for the opening pictures of this posting):

We have a small sketch of this work that shows that the mirror was present in the very early stages of the composition,

The man laying on a sofa resembles Beckman himself, but in general this is not, of course, the picture of his own family, but rather of a certain archetypical family of that moment in time and place (=Germany, early 1920s). The mirror thus also becomes a symbol of time, as well we the dark, almost black eyes it reflects. These Dark Eyes will become one of the Beckmann’s branded marks during many years to come.

Although it may be too earlier to talk about any ‘symbolisms’ of his work at this moment in time. Despite very expressionist manner, many of his paintings remain fairly realistic, and paint life ‘as is’, including mirrors, too.  The mirrors are there because they’ve been there, in these interiors.

Take, for instance, this portrait of some Fridel Battenberg (1920) (I don’t know who was she). We see her the next mirror of Beckmann, but also a trick he will be playing in many of his works, when he will be  placing the mirrors in the background of his portraits, without any visible relationship to the depicted figure. Sometimes they also show in their reflections something outside the frame, something that we wouldn’t seen otherwise.

This is a very, very old trick, it was used already by Petrus Christus, in his Goldsmith & His Mirror (see See the Falcon). But ‘old’ doesn’t mean ‘outdated’, and Beckmann is using it very successfully here, and will be exploiting it in many later works, too.

Beckmann used more conventional way of ‘mirror placement’ in his works, too. In this drawing circa 1920 called Garderobe (meaning Dress Room) we see one of the most popular mirror motifs, Woman at Her Toilette (though there is a bit of unusual twist of the theme, too, as we also see a man before a mirror, too):

There is another, more risqué drawing made about same time, called Frau in de nacht (1920) – where we can almost assume that the woman looks at the mirror on a wall.

However, the majority of the mirror works of that period are unpretentious still-life’s, such as this Still-life with a Candle (1921):

Or this Still-life with Fish and Paper Flower (1923)

or the later Still-Life with Flowers and Mirror (1927)

I found a copy of anther interesting still life, the one with Logs (1926). Unfortunately, I only have black and white version, it would be nice to find a colorful one; but it would be even more nice to understand what was the meaning of this combination, of mirror and logs.

Worth noting that all the above works depict different mirrors, design-wise. Look like Beckmann was not a One-Mirror-Lover (the pattern we saw in the works of Matisse, for instance).


Here I need to skip large number of works made by Beckmann in the 1920s. The war was over and soon forgotten, and he had been gradually becoming well-known and well-valued master, not only in German, but also wider in Europe. His works are acquired by museums and private collectors alike, and at some point he also began to teach in the Academy of Fine Art in Frankfurt.

This is his self-portrait made in 1923, of a very confident man, and a master:

I obviously suspect that this, and many other his self-portraits made with the use of mirrors – and often depicts there parts, too, like the frame on the right, in this case. This may be not always the case, of course, but I have to point that this trick was used quite widely at that time by masters, too, like Picasso or Bonnard.

Here is the next famous ‘mirror’ by Beckmann, this time in a company of his first wife, Mina Beckmann-Tube.

Portrait of Mina Beckmann-Tube (1924)

When skipping the works I also skipped the developments of his personal life. Beckmann men his future wife quite early, already in 1903 when he was studying in Berlin. Mina Tube also studied art back then, although she later became a singer, not a painter. She was three years older than him, and also much calmer and wiser, if we can say so, and in many ways it was her who helped Beckmann to cope with the post-war stress and gain new voice after.

The mirror here is yet another example of a ‘falcon trick; it does show a piece of curtain we don’t otherwise see in the painting (and some other detail too, although it’s not clear what it is):

This portrait is often compared with the portrait of the first wife of Picasso, Olga, that was painted just a year earlier, in 1923. Most likely Beckmann has seen this work, he was following the French art developments very closely. There is a book that explores in details the impact of French (and not German) painters on Bechmann – see Max Beckmann and Paris: Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Leger, Rouault.

There are even more parallels in this comparison: similar to Picasso, Bechmann soon separates with his first wife and finds new muse who will stay with him till the end of his life.

Quappi in Blue (1926)

Quappi is a nickname, and also an artistic pseudonym of Mathilde von Kaulbach (who in fact herself was a daughter of painter, Friedrich August von Kaulbach). She was only 19 when they met, twenty years younger than Beckmann, but what looked as a quick romance first became life-ling union, that survived tough years of emigration, war, and emigration once again.

Because of this famous blue dress of Quappi another painting by Beckmann can also be interpreted as her portrait, a bit enigmatic, though. It is often described as Still-life with gramophone and irises (1924)

There is a chance, of course, that this is not a mirror at all, but another painting, of a lady in mask:

I found another drawing by Bechmann that resembles real Quappi even more, and that also has something that we can understand as a ‘background mirror’:

There was another significant difference between Beckmann and Picasso in the way they departed with their first wives: the former never actually broke with Mina, and they stayed quite close to each other – at least, on the level of correspondence – till much later in life.

By the end of 1920s – beginning of 1930s Beckmann is at the peak of his fame, he moves to Berlin where he start working in a large new studio. Interestingly, his ‘mirrors’ are also getting big at this moment. I found two drawings depicting apparently the same large rectangular mirror he used as a center of the composition.


One of these drawings is fairly large, and judging by the pattern of his other work, I can assume that he was planning to also make a painting later, but I didn’t find any traces of that, yet.

However, there is another famous work, so called Still-life with the Candles (1930), where we apparently see exactly that large mirror:

There are few more works with mirrors at this time, including the large portrait often referred as Zigeunerin (1928), or Gipsy Woman.  I am not sure that this is really a gipsy model (she looks like the same Quappi to me, albeit very sensually portrayed.)  But mirror-wise, it is a very different pattern compared to what we’ve seen earlier. It is a small hand-held mirror, similar to his very first mirror, but it is depicted in a different manner, the one I used to call a ‘mirror cocoon’.

We don’t see the mirror surface here, but rather the process of looking at it, and emergence of a special immersive space-time between the mirror and the woman. We find the first striking example of his art-mirror in modern (European) history in the famous Donna con specchi by Bellini (though she was immediately using two; and also I don’t want to say that there were no ‘mirror cocoons’ earlier in art history, but I would be more careful with the interpretations of their meaning).

Speaking about the Way of Bellini, I found another interesting portrait, of a Woman with a mirror (1930) almost mimicking the famous composition.

The problem with it is if we see only one woman here. In front of us a black-haired woman, in a white turban and black-and-white blouse, with both her shoulders covered. In the reflection we see a blond woman, in a blue dress, with one shoulder open. This can not be the same woman!

It looks like Beckmann played this trick one more time, in his group portrait of Five Women and a Mirror (1935). As we know from the Venus Effect, this reflection is not of this woman, but rather of us looking at her mirror. In this case, it should be the face of the painter himself who is painting this work – or we accept the plot of the scene, one of the visitors of this ball caught by this mirror.

Another work by Beckmann may again look like an allusion to the mirrors by Pierre Bonnard, and not only because we see the mirror in a bathroom here, but also because the whole scene may be in fact a reflection in yet another, larger mirror, a typical trick for Bonnard.

Bath (1930)

There is one painting that apparently reveals the ‘secret’ of such compositions, so called Still-life with a telescope (1927). We see one mirror very clearly here, the same large mirror placed in the very background here, behind the table. But the key and door handle on the right hint that all what we see can, in fact, be a reflection in an even larger mirror, of a large wardrobe, for instance.

There is a very unusual work of the mid-1930s, called A view from a window in Baden-Baden, that has a mirror somewhat resembling the gramophone one: we also see it reflecting someone’s face, but don’t see this person in the painting.

There is also a small self-portrait, circa 1933, that is similar to this Baden-Baden view: unusually to his manner, Beckmann portrayed himself merely as a gloomy shadow in a mirror.

It’s a sober yet also very disquieting work; it looks like if Beckmann has already foreseen what’s coming: emerging Nazi regime, ‘degenerative art’, emigration and all the rest. There is another very indicative self-portrait of him, not with a mirror, but with a crystal ball of some sort.  Was it this ball that has helped him to see the future?


This is the end of Part I (‘Beckmann Simple’); Part II will be about ‘Beckmann Complex’.


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