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‘Max Beckmann imagines the world as a carnival in this portfolio. On the title page, he casts himself as a barker for a traveling band of outsiders, the Circus Beckmann. Shown ringing a bell, and pointing to the edge of the page, he urges viewers to behold the spectacles unfolding within. In Beckmann’s theater of life everyone plays many roles: actor, observer, director. The ten rich, velvety drypoints touch upon the major themes he explored throughout his long and productive career: existential crisis, the alienation of modern life, and the insurmountable conflict between the sexes. Beckmann’s Expressionist manipulation of space and his pushing together of figures increase the emotional distance between the individuals, who appear to exist only in worlds unto themselves. Actors corralled together backstage wait patiently, not realizing that their true performance—life itself—has already begun. Beckmann conveys female sexuality as a dangerous lure in scenes set in the shooting gallery, on stage, and behind the scenes. In one print, he depicts himself and his wife, Minna, balancing on a tightrope—an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which the philosopher describes man as a “rope” hung over an abyss between base animal and heroic Übermensch’ (Heather Hess, Museum of Modern Art, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011).
“The years between 1914 and 1920 are the crucial ones in Beckmann’s work, and it is only in his prints, and particularly in the drypoints, that the great consolidation of the mature Beckmann style can be witnessed. The flamboyant calligraphy is discarded, the nervous tension relieved, and the images become simpler and more distinctive, thereby creating a stronger impact on our immediate perception and on our memory. If in this development one might even venture to speak of a climax, the works of 1920 and 1921 could claim the distinction. …There must be mentioned, first of all the magnificent self-portraits with bowler, and the ten plates of the Annual Fair” (Harold Joachim, Beckmann’s Prints, in Peter Selz, Max Beckmann, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1964, pp 118-119).