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For Max Beckmann, the world was a stage

Stefan Dege sh
September 29, 2017

He once wanted to be a theater manager, a director and a stage hand. Then Max Beckmann became one of the most famous German painters of the 20th century. A Bremen exhibition highlights his lifelong love for the stage.

Max Beckmanns „Selbstbildnis gelb-rosa“- Auktion in Berlin
Image: Grisebach/dpa/picture alliance

"World Theater" is the name of the show that will be on display at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam from February 24 to June 10, 2018. It brings together paintings, sculptures and works on paper by the artist of the century, Max Beckmann (1884-1950).The exhibitionis is centered around his passion for theater, which began at the start of his artistic career in the 1920s and lasted until the end of his life in 1950.

Beckmann repeatedly painted images and characters from variety shows, circuses and fairs. Acrobats, dancing clowns and gesturing actors swirl throughout his paintings. Often, the artist painted himself amidst the action.

On display in Bremen are also theatrical texts from Beckmann's own pen. Although he sometimes painted portraits of actors, he primarily depicted scenes from life behind the curtains and on stage. The types of performers he painted ranged from tightrope walkers to acrobats on the trapeze to circus animals. Beckmann himself enjoyed attending masked balls and slipping into different costumes.

Read more: Max Beckmann work breaks auction record 

Theater as a commentary on the times

He was particularly close to the role of the clown, as his numerous self-portraits in clown costume suggest.

"Beckmann felt a duty to the people to be a reporter who could show social opposites," remarked exhibition organizers Eva Fischer-Hausdorf and Ortrud Westheider. "His works around the 'world theater' can also be read as a political commentary on his time."

Max Beckmann in Bremen,Self-Portrait with Saxophone (1930)
Self-Portrait with Saxophone (1930)Image: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

This societal commentary is apparent in a masterpiece borrowed from the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, USA: the 1942 triptych "Actor." The fact that Beckmann liked to use the metaphor of the "world theater" is clearly displayed in this work. The king, who commits suicide onstage, has the traits of the artist himself. Beckmann observed himself as an outsider as he continued to paint himself into his work. The blasé king leaving the stage of life represents the transition to Beckmann's so-called "fourth dimension, which I seek with all my soul." This wonderful three-part triptych is a grandiose melange of color, form and noise.  

The "World Theater” exhibition in Kunsthalle Bremen was developed in collaboration with the new Barberini Museum in Potsdam. The exhibition will eventually be shown there as well.