In five compact rooms, the seemingly boundless exhibition Max Beckmann: The Formative Years, 1915–1925 at the Neue Galerie uncoils a tale of creative crisis, psychic dislocation, and scrambling ambition bracketed within the most transformative decade of the painter’s career.

In the years prior to World War I, a very young Max Beckmann (1884–1950) established himself as the darling of the Berlin Secession, the proto-modernist art movement that declared its independence from the academic Association of Berlin Artists in 1898. But there was a problem, and he knew it. Despite his public scraps defending the once-progressive styles of Symbolism, Realism, and Impressionism against a new crop of upstarts waving the banners of Fauvism, Primitivism, and Expressionism, Beckmann intuited that neither the epic narratives he aspired to paint nor the wobbly Impressionistic architecture he imposed on them were up to the pitch of the moment. By the time he volunteered as a medical orderly at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he was at a dead end. 

After a year of exposure to the horrors of war, he suffered a nervous breakdown and mustered out of the military. The ancient order had collapsed, and so had his preconceptions. He had to strike out on an independent path, but old habits die hard. In 1916 he began a vast painting on the subject of the Resurrection in the hope of rivaling the Old Masters, but the project proved too unwieldy in concept and execution, and he eventually abandoned it. The exhibition starts up in the middle of this crisis. 

The first works we encounter are three self-portraits on paper: a drypoint from 1916 and two drawings from 1917, one in pen and ink and the other in pencil. They’re the most logical place to begin, whether or not you’re aware of the backstory; in each, Beckmann’s existential condition can be read in his eyes. In the drypoint, they flick off to the side in acute anxiety; in the pen and ink, they stare ahead out of blacked-out, exhausted orifices; and in the pencil drawing, they’re again fixed on the viewer, but this time bulging in defiance, perhaps even simmering rage, as chaotic cross-hatchings slice the planes around them. 

Max Beckmann, “Descent from the Cross” (1917), oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Curt Valentin Bequest (© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

The adjacent wall presents three biblical paintings, all from 1917 — the great “Descent from the Cross” from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art; “Adam and Eve”; and “Christ and the Sinner,” one of three paintings borrowed from the rich Beckmann holdings at the Saint Louis Museum of Art. With their caricatured figures and leached-out color, these paintings mark a decisive break from Beckmann’s malerisch pre-war Post-Impressionism. But more tellingly, his Neo-Gothic impulse (according to “Transcendental Objectivity: Max Beckmann’s Modernity,” the illuminating catalogue essay by the exhibition’s curator, Olaf Peters) arose from a nationalistic desire, partially provoked by the war, to invest his work with a distinct “German-ness” — however uncomfortable that term may sound in light of events two decades later.

On the surface, the sharply angled, quasi-Cubist drawing style and unconventional costuming of “Descent” and “Sinner” could be intended to create a more modern, relatable narrative, one that would touch the emotions more directly than a distant historical account. But in his catalogue essay, curator Peters asserts that Beckmann’s objective was quite the opposite: “By appropriating and even mocking the tradition, Beckmann was emphatically culminating the turn away from the Christian religion and faith.” 

As the artist wrote in a letter to his publisher, Reinhard Piper:

A new mystical feeling will form. Humility before God is over. My religion is arrogance before God, defiance of God. Defiance that he has created us so that we cannot love one another. In my paintings I accused God of everything he has done wrong. 

His goal, as stated in “Bekenntnis” (“Confession”), a text he wrote in 1918, was instead: 

To build a tower in which humanity can shriek out its rage and despair and all its poor hopes and joys and wild yearning. A new church. Perhaps this age may help me.

Max Beckmann, “Landscape with Balloon (1917), oil on canvas, Museum Ludwig, Cologne (© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

This statement alone places Beckmann front and center as an artist of our own time, and his failure to carry out such a plan — Peters writes that the “‘new church’ […] became a church of nihilism, despite his intention to the contrary” — only underscores his contemporaneity. But as Beckmann himself affirms in his “Creative Credo” (1918–20), reprinted in the catalogue, he may have rejected hollowed-out idols yet he retained what Peters terms “a metaphysical need,” which went beyond the narrow parameters of German-ness to restore his faith in art and its connection to the outer world:

I certainly hope we are finished with much of the past. Finished with the mindless imitation of visible reality; finished with feeble, archaistic, and empty decoration, and finished with that false, sentimental, and swooning mysticism! I hope we will achieve a transcendental objectivity out of a deep love for nature and humanity. The sort of thing you can see in the art of Mälesskircher, Grünewald, Brueghel, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. 

The exhibition tracks, with vibrant contrasts in color and scale, the transformation of Beckmann’s art from a sardonic carnival of grotesques to images that bespeak “a deep love for nature and humanity” without ever losing their edge. (It shouldn’t be ignored that, three paragraphs before the above quote, Beckmann tempers his love for humanity with the admission, “Actually it’s stupid to love humanity […]. But I love it anyway. I love its meanness, its banality, its dullness, its cheap contentment, and its oh-so-very-rare heroism.”) 

Max Beckmann, “Portrait of Elsbet Götz” (1924), oil on canvas, Museum Behnhaus Drägerhaus (© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Arguably the most bitter pictures in the show are from the war years, drypoints, drawings, and a woodcut depicting corpses laid out in a morgue or soldiers under attack, an enormous grenade bursting in their midst like a malignant sun. Included on the same wall is a portrait of Adam and Eve from 1917, and like Beckmann’s painting of the same subject, Eve’s breast, rather than the standard apple, becomes the object of desire. Dirty, stooped, and hairy, more in line with Darwin than Genesis, they look like suitable forebears of a species endowed with a special talent for brutalizing one another.

But even at that time there was another side to Beckmann, one expressed in 1917’s “Landscape with Balloon,” a canvas influenced by the gentlest of painters, Henri Rousseau, of a hot-air balloon floating above an empty, leafy boulevard. In the years that followed, Beckmann’s attitude toward his fellow humans would ricochet between admiration and affection, frustration, fury, and horror — often from painting to painting, but at times, and most pungently, in a single work.

A suite of intimate canvases — portraits of his wife and his friends, a female nude, and a couple of still lifes — hang in a room alongside Beckmann’s ultra-sardonic “Paris Society,” a picture filled with grinning, bored, and thuggish specimens of the upper crust, which he first painted in 1925 and reworked twice, in 1931 and 1947. We can only imagine how his frame of mind evolved over the course of those tortuous decades. But we can tell at a glance the esteem in which Beckmann held his friends and loved ones. Perhaps the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen by the artist is his portrait of Elsbet Götz (1924), a tender, light-filled image of a dark-haired woman in an iridescent green dress, her hands clasped before her. But history is a monster, and her fate, curtly recounted in a wall text, feels like a kidney punch.

Max Beckmann, “The Martyrdom,” Plate 4, Hell portfolio (1919), lithograph, publisher: J. B. Neumann, Berlin; printer: C. Naumann’s Druckerei, Frankfurt am Main; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Larry Aldrich Fund (© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

These paintings hang in a room on one end of the museum’s third floor. A gallery full of equally stunning canvases is found on the opposite end. The two rooms in between offer a rich selection of prints and drawings that attest to Beckmann’s inquiring mind, pictorial range, and formal invention. With the Faces series (1918, published 1919), he takes on the role of social observer, pouring out images of lovers, family gatherings, a theater, a cafe, an asylum, and an operating room, along with adaptations of the paintings “Descent from the Cross” and “Landscape with Balloon.”

The more well known Hell portfolio (1919), by contrast, is a portrait of the Weimar Republic in its infancy, and it’s a particularly ugly baby, teeming with anarchy, hunger, sadism, and murder. In “The Martyrdom” (plate 4), the assassinated Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg is stretched across the picture plane in the same cruciform pose as Christ in “Descent from the Cross,” and in “The Night” (plate 7), adapted from a painting of the same name, a family is slaughtered in a home invasion that could be straight out of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. According to Peters’s essay, the family Beckmann portrayed is his own.

The final room carries the cognitive dissonance of Beckmann’s worldview to an extreme. The colors are bright, limpid, even sweet, quite unlike the more strident tones of his later work, while the kaleidoscopic compositions are stuffed with nightmares — a bait-and-switch that draws you in and then freezes you in place. Among the most horrific is “Galleria Umberto” (1925), one of three of the artist’s “Italian paintings” in the show, works he based on a two-week vacation on the Adriatic in 1924. An enigmatic scene of torture and death painted just three years into Mussolini’s regime, “Galleria Umberto” envisions the consequences that Fascism would hold for Europe and the world. A maimed body hangs upside down in front of an Italian flag, while, below, mysterious figures appear trapped by a mass of churning surf as two hands reach upward, in desperation or surrender, from the surface of the water, caught in a vortex that we’re still trying, and failing, to escape.

Max Beckmann, “Christ and the Sinner” (1917), oil on canvas, Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Curt Valentin (© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Max Beckmann: The Formative Years, 1915–1925 continues at Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 15. The exhibition was curated by Olaf Peters.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

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