How Hamburg expands the view of Max Beckmann

Lthe label of the manliest of all painters stuck to him, of the virile heavyweight with muscles and macho attitude: Max Beckmann became Max Becksupermann, as he styled himself in his early portrait in Florence 1907, challenging the viewer, the cigarette casually in hand, shoulders taut. Countless other self-portraits followed, sometimes one of his two wives is there as a supportive addition, such as Minna in 1909, with whom he seems to have grown together.

Could it be that Beckmann was not only in love with his own portrayal, but that he was repeatedly insecure about himself? Was he shouting “I, I, I!” So ​​loudly to make sure of his existence and meaning in this way? If you look closely, says Karin Schick, Head of the Classic Modern Collection at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, you can definitely see the contradictions between Beckmann’s being and appearances, between the narcissistic stagings in art and their subtle fault lines. With an open-minded, free exploratory look, she curated the grandiose show “Max Beckmann female-male” for her house.

Power relations in the balance

After “Self-Portraits” (1993), “Landscape as Strangers” (1998) and “The Still Lives” (2014), this is already the fourth engagement with Beckmann in the Hamburger Kunsthalle – and certainly the boldest. Regardless of the fact that his work has long been considered to be “well hung” and interpreted, here – historically sound and contextually anchored – new views and impressions can be gained in the around 140 paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Although the show courageously illuminates the doubts and questions, errors and confusions that are inscribed in the painter and his oeuvre, who, aware of his incompleteness, dreamed of being complemented by the feminine, he of course remains a manly monument. Wanting to understand him in his time and still questioning him from today’s point of view, the selection concentrates on the gender roles that changed significantly during Beckmann’s creative years between 1900 and 1950, and on his interpretations of them.


Max Beckmann (1884–1950) Adam and Eve, 1917 Oil on canvas, 79.8 x 56.7 cm
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Image: bpk / Nationalgalerie, SMB / JË †

For example, it is the ungracious woman in “Das Bad” from 1930, who dries herself off next to the tub and throws the man lying in it off balance with a light step on the shoulder. In the central oil painting “Odysseus and Calypso” (1943), too, the balance of power is in limbo, limbs, arms of the sea and an endless snake intertwine into a tangle of volatile dependencies. In his “Self-Portrait with a Beach Cap” in 1929 Beckmann posed unusually coquettishly in front of the easel, as in a film still from Fassbinder’s “Querelle”. Sublime, the levels of meaning and narrative overlap in “Two Women (in Glass Door)” 1940. The dressed up women are segmented by the door elements and for a moment frozen between the inside and outside world, completely focused on themselves, dominating the picture. From the left edge she is looking at an onlooker who can only be seen in profile when cut. This is clearly Beckmann himself, who often sat alone in train station restaurants and hotel foyers – during his teaching activities at the Städelschule between 1925 and 1933, he liked in the Frankfurter Hof – and observed the urban hustle and bustle around him.

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