Reflecting Darkness: Max Beckmann (Part II)

Part II of the story about Beckmann’s mirrors was supposed to be written the next day after the Part I. In real life it took ten days, and one of the reason was a ‘severe critique’ of the previous posting. I was asked one of those fundamental questions, such as Why have written this story at all? and more specifically, what is the special about Beckmann’s mirrors that we haven’t seen before? Such questions tend to quickly escalate into even more fundamental questions of why do I bother to keep writing here it all (leading to the usual suspect such as ‘I shouldn’t, actually’).

Parking the Big Question aside for a moment, I can say – in defence of Beckmann – that there was indeed nothing special about his mirrors, yet. The works that I was showing last time were interesting, but only modestly so (and I mean here interesting mirror-wise). We have seen earlier, most of the way in which mirror are shown in the paintings, sometimes centuries earlier.   But there is something in his mirrors that is – if not completely unique, then at least original enough to claim a wall or two in an imaginary Museum of Mirrors in Art.

The painting which I have started this posting is very interesting in itself, but becomes truly indicative if placed in a broader context of his life, and all the developments around it. In many ways it can be read as a ‘sign of the future’, the future of his own art, and also the future of his life.

It is actually not one, but three paintings; it’s a triptych, the format that will be used increasingly by Beckmann in the 1930s, and that will eventually become his branded style by the end of life.

Speaking about mirrors, we see one here quite clearly, the oval mirror with red surface.

Or may be it’s two? and the man is also holding on a mirror? or three, if we also assume that the other ‘thing in a frame’ on a wall is a mirror, and not a painting.

But independently on the exact number of mirrors, it’s clear that the meaning of this work is not very obvious. We can, of course, recede to plain factual descriptions (such as ‘there is a man in a yellow shirt and red trousers reclining on a foreground, apparently chained’, or ‘there is a woman on a background in yellow dress and semi-exposed breast’), but they wouldn’t bring much clarity. And in fact it would be not that easy to produce even such factual descriptions about many elements of this painting: “Here is a human-size bird that pokes its beak into the cage? Where we see a woman breastfeeding a fox? Looking at a messenger who carries a crown on a tray? While leading another woman, who crawls after him in a BDSM pose?”

What may look like a typical work of ‘expressionism’ quickly becomes an example of another -ism, something closer to surrealism, or symbolism (or ‘magical realism’, how it would be labelled today). We can skip those -isms, of course, but in any case the works of this kind are not self-explanatory, and requires a certain ‘conceptual framework’ to be understood.

Situation becomes even more interesting when we learn that the ‘conceptual framework’ for this triptych is ‘Temptations of Saint Anthony’. Some time ago I wrote large post about this theme, and the role of mirrors in it – see Black Mirrors of St.Anthony (it’s worth to quickly look through this posting, if you want to refresh your memory about quite a complex story of these temptations).


But before I go into the story of this particular work, I’d like to take a few steps back, and explore how – and why – Beckmann began working on such phantasmagoric works at all. Speaking about the role of ‘fantasy’ in Beckmann, it’s important to stress (again) that Beckmann always considered himself a ‘realist painter’. Now, the discussion what is ‘realism’ could be very long here, and I would try to avoid it if possible. Obviously, many people would accept this self-attribution by Beckmann, postulating that only very narrow set of representational works (those leaning toward ‘photorealism’) can be considered ‘realistic’ (and his ones are not of that kind).

Some other schools would not have any problems with seeing him as a realist, exactly because of the generally representational nature of his art (Beckmann himself was a strong critic of any forms of ‘abstract’ and non-representational art, by the way). But in this context the question raises if, for instance, Bosch a realistic painter or not? Can the depiction of imaginary and non-existing (fantastic) things be considered ‘realism’?

In case of Beckmann these questions could be asked already about some of his earlier works, for example, Dream (1921).  Every character on this painting can be considered ‘realistic’, yet together the atmosphere is very surreal, or oneiric, the description often applied to the works of Leonora Carrington, for example.

There is one suspicious object here, by the way, what we can understood as a ‘mirror’ (the one in a green frame).

As often happens with such ‘oneiric’ works, their exact understanding is very difficult. Most likely, all the things in this painting had very clear meaning for Beckmann himself (and could indeed reflect the content of his dreams), but this meaning is totally non-transparent for us, the viewers.   I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream, sings Lana Del Rey;  if only this would be possible.

Which in turns opens a wide space for all kind of interpretations, for looking for ‘archetypes’, ‘symbolisms’, and other psychoanalytically-colored content. I am happy to read all those when they are presented, for me it is as important a part of the history of ideas as the art works themselves, of course. What I am trying to avoid those is to produce my own, or affiliate with any of those proposed; not my way.

What is interesting to notice here is a very peculiar compositional solution, vertical, as in Japanese paintings, making the scene looking like a Alice’s fall down the White Rabbit’s hole.

As I wrote, Mina, the first wife of the painter, was a singer, and through her and her contacts Max Beckmann has always been close to the theater and artistic life in general. He was a frequent visitor of various performances, and also familiar with behind-the-scene life.

Many of his works depict this life, too, for example, Variété (1921). Initially I intended to show simply as an illustration of his works about artistic life, but then discovered an object that may be in fact a mirror – a small rectangular frame with a tea-pot on a top held by a trumpeter.

There is also a number of works related to carnivals and festivities, such as Die Leirermann [Organ Grinder] (1935).

Again, we can see this work as just another example of playful, not-so-real situations – but then I also spotted an object on the painting that can be seen as a mirror (an oval one, hanging on a large nail).

And then again, if to share my proclivity to mirrors, we can also spot another one, behind the drum:

and perhaps another one, the large rectangular mirror we’ve seen earlier in the artist’s studio, this time standing behind two enigmatic female figures in the top register.

Why would he need all these mirrors (assuming, of course, that these are really mirrors)?

Here is another carnival, this time Carnival in Paris (1930)

There are no mirrors here (or at least I didn’t find one), but there is an indicative object in the left hand of the man. Is it a trumpet? or a sword/large knife? (or a trumpet becoming a knife?)

The depictions of ‘swords/knifes’ will appear more frequent in his works with time (and they also become unmistakably ‘weapons’, rather than anything else). Her is an interesting painting:

It doesn’t have any mirror per se, but I found the very fact of making it very revealing, in the view of many other mythological and allegorical works by Beckmann that will be made later.  It is called Geschwister (that is easier translate to English – siblings – than to some other languages. For example, I would need to use three-times wordier ‘Brother And Sisters’ to make it to Russian.

The title couples with the picture makes the scene somewhat incestual, but it’s not. In reality this is an illustration to Die Walküre, an opera by Richard Wagner, a part of the The Ring of the Nibelung cycle. So, the people we see are indeed brother and sister, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and thus the sword if the famous Nothung (read about this dramatic story here).

Just for a visual record, this is how this scene would be depicted by more conventional illustrators (in this case, from the set of design by Josef Hoffmann):

My learning here is that many paintings by Beckmann were in fact illustrations, for various literature, theatre or musical pieces, and thus contained multiple layers of cultural references. Without knowing these references it’s often hardly possible to understand the meaning of many of his works.  However, these are *not only* illustrations as well, as Beckmann has eventually created his own language, his own possible world, full of indigenous symbols and signs.

Take, for instance, his famous Travelling on Fishes (1934), where interpreters are seeing the references to Homer, Goethe’s Faust, Pieter Bruegel and Max Klinger, among others (i.e., roughly a taste of pie, ice-cream, roast fowl, and hot toast).

In this case we also know the response of Beckmann himself to the question Why do you paint fishes on your paintings? “Because I like fishes,” mumbled Beckmann. “Also they are symbols” – “Symbols of what?”  – “The symbols of spirit. But that’s my take, and a spectator has to find own meaning when looking at my paintings.”

This is what essentially the works of Beckmann are, open invitations to search for your own meaning of what you see on them. On one of his fish-works I in fact see the interchanges of fishes and mirrors – the painting is called Three Sisters” (1935):

The Women – The Mirrors – The Fishes – The Spirits. Mirrors become spiritual signs, too.

The ‘spiritual fishes’ appear already on the very first triptych by Beckmann, called  Departure (1935) (the one I have started this story from, with the Temptations, was the second triptych).

Aside of the symbolic interpretation of this complex work, it worth to remember some simple physical things, too. One of them is that the many works by Beckmann, and especially these triptychs, are usually HUGE. They often indeed resemble the giant altarpieces we see in churches; the only differences is that we don’t know the ‘religion’ they narrate so powerfully.

Beckmann himself vehemently refused to provide any help here. When asked by an American art dealer who purchased this work to explain its meaning, Beckmann replied that he is ready to take it back and return the payment, but would write nothing.

Thus, everybody is free and welcome to interpret these works in any other possible way. Some people find here Biblical allusions, some see a kaleidoscope of surrealistic exercises. Some others manage to read it as a satirical account on the emerging Nazi regime in Germany, both content-wise and also aesthetically.  Hitler came to power in January 1933 and already by spring the country went through the first wave of ‘aesthetic cleansing’.  Beckmann was labelled ‘cultural Bolshevik’ and soon lost the post at the Frankfurt School of Art, the one he hold from 1925.  Perhaps, not literally but the scenes depicted here do resonate with what Beckmann experienced back then.

Interestingly, but this classical, almost archaic format of triptychs has became very popular in the Nazi Germany, aiming to resurrect the ideal Heroic Classicism in art – see, for instance, this famous work by Adolf Ziegler – The Four Elements (1937). Not directly, perhaps, but the works by Beckmann could be also seen as parodies in this context.

This art polemics could be interesting and entertaining, but the down-to-earth realities were much more painful and dangerous. In the next two years the majority of Beckmann’s work was expelled from museums and galleries, and it was forbidden to acquire his new works.  In short, it meant ‘arrest on profession’. Max Beckmann was not the only one who suffered from this new art politics by the Nazis, many other artists were equally doomed.

The climax of these persecution has arrived in 1937, when the famous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition was organised in Munich. One of the Beckmann’s works is seen on the photograph below, hanging in this exhibition together with many example of the ‘wrong art’. In his speech Adolf Hitler specifically mentioned Beckmann as an example of ‘modernistic experiments’ that will be not tolerated on the territory of his Reich.

Max Beckmann was listening this speech on radio, and the next day he already leaving Germany by train, aiming at Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I understand that it was not a completely impulsive decision, and they were preparing this departure already for a while.The speech has just became the last nail in the coffin.

Beckmann was even able to take few of his works with him – but he providently didn’t sign them, to avoid possible questions on the border. For example, he took the large Temptation triptych with him.

They didn’t plan to stay in the Netherlands, the idea was only to fill the documents there to emigrate to the USA.  However, similar to many German emigrants, he was not able to obtain the US visa and had to stay in the Netherlands for more than ten years. He will be able to get to America only in 1948, and he would never go back Germany ever since.


Back to art: the format of large narrative triptychs that may initially look like artistic experiment, will become one of the major form for Beckman, and the majority of them will be created in Amsterdam. Many of them will have mirrors, and some of them won’t (and for some other one can not be really sure). But in any case these works compose a whole different, and important chapter of Beckman’s oeuvre (and in some sense *are* the main art works by him).

Here is his Acrobats (1939), his next large triptych (or the next possible world, if you wish).

I assume there is a mirror here, one of the Beckmann’s background mirrors (but I may be – understandably – not very objective here).

Here is the next world, of Actors (1941):

Here we clearly see one mirror – as in Woman with a Mirror, but may be also two, as it could be also be a scene of a Woman Looking at her back in a Large Mirror, using a Small Mirror. Again, I could be assuming too many mirrors here, but I wouldn’t discard this version at least as a hypothesis.

A wonderfully bright triptych Carnival  (1941)

where we can find yet another ‘background mirror’:

These triptychs are all indeed wonderful, powerful works of art, but they were not the only paintings made by Beckmann, of course.  He was of course creating many other paintings. Some of them are more ‘realistic’ (i.e., commissioned portraits) than the others (i.e., large allegorical, almost surreal works).

He was always creating his owl self-portraits, including this most famous of him, perhaps, the so called ‘Self-portrait with a horn’ (1938). It was recently sold for more than 20 million pounds, the most expensive work by Beckman so far (I am sure that any of his triptych would commission much more, but they are all in large museums, and unlikely will hit the market any time soon).

Speaking about mirrors, I suspect one in a background, in the yellow frame, although I can also suggest that the border we see on the right side (red-brown one) can also belong to the mirror the artist would use to make this very self-portrait.

I have a copy of the painting that is called Life It’s dated 1937, but I don’t know if it already belongs to the Dutch peridod, or still to the German one. Technically speaking we see a fairly realistic scene, of birth-giving:

Yet Beckmann decided to place a mirror in this setting too (we see on a background, behind the doctor (?). By now I would say it’s strange, as mirrors are usually the sign of something non-real, or sur-real in his works:

Later Beckmann will paint a somewhat symmetrical response to this work, the painting called Death, but there will no mirrors in it, and I don’t show it.

There are no mirrors in the next work either, but I decided to show it here anyway. First, one can never be completely sure (and perhaps those yellow circles in the upper-right corner *are* mirrors). But for me it is also interesting to spot the self-referencing motif in his works. The painting (usually called Birds’ Hell) is repeating the theme of human suffering and tortures, the one we have already seen on his earlier painting called Night (1928). The only difference is that the tormentors are now not people but some infernal creatures. Do internal creatures look at the mirrors? Or may be the infernal creatures are mirrors? Who knows.

The name of the next mirror work is the Dream of the soldier (1942), and by then the war was always somewhere near, even in the Netherlands, and so it literally occupied his artworks . Beckmann had to run semi-legal life even here, the German powers even tried to recruit him to the military service at some point, and he narrowly escaped by changing his age in the documents.

The following one is a very revealing work. Here Beckmann portrayed himself, together with a few friends (or better call them colleagues). Its official title is Artistes mit Gemüse (1942) that can be literally translated as Artists with Vegetables. Indeed, one of them, sitting to the left from Beckmann, holds carrot, but the other one has a fish in this hand, and the third is with the load of of bread.

Interestingly, but Beckmann himself holds a small mirror (and I actually suspect one more mirror, that hangs on a back wall):

The title is of course a play with words, and in reality Beckmann meant Artists with Muses, which makes his choice of mirror for himself very indicative.

It happened that Beckmann created many of his mirrors (perhaps if not the absolute majority, then the majority of ‘interesting’ ones)  in Amsterdam, in exile. When working on this posting, I found a very interesting book about this period of his life – Max Beckmann: Exile in Amsterdam – that describes in details his life in this city, the places he lived and visited, the people he met there, and the works he created. The book does not mention in any clear way why mirrors were so important for him at this moment in time.

The next drawing is another portrait of him, perhaps the most sad and tired self he ever painted:

After the war life gradually started to get a bit better, and his paintings became less gloomy, too.  At the end of 1945 he paints a work with somewhat ‘Dutch’ motifs, the women wear traditional Dutch hats, and one of them is with a mirror (to my knowledge, there is nothing specifically Dutch in this mirror, though).

And another mirror, in a much more warm and peaceful Woman in front of a mirror (1946):

Soon he will return to his beloved theme, of theatre and masquerade, in the Actresses (1946) where we see one of a very few. of his large mirrors being actually used:

There is another work of this late-Dutch period, very relaxed and sensual, that is called Girls’ Room or sometimes Siesta (1946) (and one of the girls is actually using the mirror):

I don’t know the exact context behind this work, but it can well be a brothel scene; Beckmann has few sketches depicting the Red Light District in Amsterdam.

I also found a couple of still-life works of this period that also have mirrors. I suspect the oval mirror on the background in the first one:

And there are ‘not one, but two’ mirrors in the second:

But the most interesting ‘mirror work’ of this period Beckmann created at the very end of his staying in the Netherlands. Again, I don’t know exactly the context of its creation, and who commissioned it – this information would definitely add more dimensions to the story. Alas.

The painting is called King Saul and the Witch of Endor (1947):

I have discovered this story (and the role that mirrors payed in it) relatively recently – see the posting On miraculous mirrors, witches, and suicides. If I would know about this work by Beckmann, I’d definitely added it the list of works I write about there.

It is, in fact, the most ‘mirrored’ version of the Kind Saul encounter with the Witch of Endor. The mirror here occupies most of the painting’s space, and it is in its surface we see the main figure, the killed and mutilated king. The fact that it’s totally wrong design for such a mirror should not really confuse us; Beckmann was not the first, and won’t be the last sinner of atemporality in art.


Was Beckmann’s King Saul again a prophetic piece, predicting his own fate? In August 1947 he and Quappi finally were able to go to America, where Max Beckmann was invited by the University in Saint Louis. Soon he began to create his American works, and fairly actively – and as a result, for example, the Saint Louis Art Museum has a relatively large collection of his last works.

I even found one work with the mirror – or again, with something that I am ready to see as a mirror, the one behind the blond girl.  The painting is called Two actresses (or sometimes Two woman with a cat  (1949)

In 1949 Beckmann was invited to move to New York, when he was offered a position of professor with the School of Art at the Brooklyn Museum.  I found a photograph of his studio in New York – it would be nice to know that this ‘painting’ with a weird frame was, perhaps, a mirror:

Here is his last triptych that remained unfinished; mirrors galore here, they are present on the two out of three panels:

On the right one we see already familiar combo, a woman holding a small mirror, to look at herself in the larger one (do we see a cameo of Beckmann there?):

The left one has the mirror of new type for Beckmann, the one we find in the actors’ dress rooms, with a characteristic lamps places around mirror surface.

He will die in December 1950, from heart attack, on the street of New York, while walking to his office. He was 66.

“I crossed life on its periphery”, wrote Beckmann before his death. I sense he said it with great pride.


As often happen after these ‘long stories’, I don’t have ‘deep’ and ‘thoughtful’ to say, perhaps yet. Time and efforts had been spent on gathering and describing the individual works, but I can’t make my mind yet and come up with something about the role of mirrors in general in the works by Beckmann. I do feel that mirrors were always a very loaded concept for him, he used them a lot, and in most cases in much more complex way than mere looking glasses.  In this sense the story about Beckmann’s Mirror-Fishes is yet to be written.


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