German Seeker

2 minute read

One of my problems is to find the Ego, which has only one form and is immortal —to find it in animals and men, in the heaven and in the hell which together form the world in which we live.

Max Beckmann sometimes talks like this—like a mystic or a philosopher, but his best ideas are wordless. They come from what he calls “the labor of the eyes.” Says he: “If you wish to get hold of the invisible you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible.”

Driven from Germany in 1937 (Hitler felt that both his art and his theories were “degenerate”), Beckmann pursued his invisible, immutable Ego to Holland, spent the war years stalking it around the vast, onetime tobacco storeroom which is his Amsterdam studio.

Last week, for the first time in the U.S., the visible by-products of Beckmann’s war work went on view in a Manhattan gallery. His fiery heavens, icy hells, and bestial men showed why he is called Germany’s greatest living artist.

The picture most gallerygoers liked best was Beckmann’s monumental triptych Acrobats, a highflying, three-ring circus fantasy wild enough to outclass even Ringling Bros. He had splashed on colors with the lavish hand of a man who wakes up to find a rainbow in his pocket. And he made each color count.

For those who looked long enough, every member of Acrobats’ painted cast came alive. Among the performers: a smiling, bloody-handed centurion; a drum-beating dwarf; a quizzical, bare-legged blonde selling Eskimo Pies; a mean-eyed young man in the coils of a friendly python; a crowned, repulsively ugly juggler embracing a beautiful purple ball; trapeze artists necking on a safety net; an old maid caressing a toothed fish. They all hinted at a mingled horror and loveliness which might be the nature of Beckmann’s still-undiscovered Ego.

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