Max Beckmann at Tate Modern

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From the north side of London, the Tate Modern is best reached by walking from the traffic circle before St. Pauls Cathedral over the Thames on the new Millenium footbridge to the main doors of the museum. That seventeenth-century St. Pauls and the twenty-first century Beckmann exhibit both contain paintings of "spiritual significance," that both display religious-seeming tryptychs, makes the meander over the bridge ironically a bit of an arc across the human condition. In our war- and atrocity-ridden time, the journey seems entirely one way, towards Beckmann.

A further irony might be induced from the fact that the Beckmann exhibition was running concurrently with the Aztec exhibit at the Royal Academy. The Aztec artifacts, impressive and often beautiful, still deeply underline that culture's gloomy fears and horrors. Once the Aztecs learned how to propitiate the gods with sacrifices they took no chance on any actual experience that the sun might rise the next day or the next month without offering to the event the insurance of a thousand human hearts. Beckmann's pictures also operate as enactments of propitiatory scenes. One suspects that the Aztecs might be better equipped to read them than the gentle worshippers at St. Pauls.

Beckmann's genius involves a remarkable and unsettling simultaneity of the contemporary and the archaic. His images are cluttered with objects that jar anachronistically against each other. Ancient ritual swords and modern torture machines, the kind found in the cellars of the Nazis or indeed the palaces of Saddam, co-exist on the same frame of canvas. And Beckmann can deploy a remarkable sense of color and line to reinforce the point, as with the slate greens and blacks of his early The Sinking of the Titanic: Beckmann's unique strokes of color make the waves look less like water than like stony altar pieces on which the hapless, drowning victims are sacrificed to the new, heartless gods of modernity. The night sky above this scene of misfortune is rendered in the fiery reds of the burning ship, as though it were simply another morphing of implacable malevolence.

While often mutedly displaying their traditional lineaments, Beckmann's more famous paintings--the tryptychs, the brazen self-portraits, the panels of mutilated and tortured figures--appear to be derived, not from the experiences of a particular religion or culture, but from a deep perpetual category of unregulated impulse that lies always beneath the veneer of culture. Very few of Beckmann's painted faces register astonishment at what they are doing or the fate that is overtaking them. Grimaces, contortions of pain, mouths open to scream are all highly stylized, looking more like ceremonial masks than actual human faces. Violence and cruelty are routinized, meted out and received with a monumental passivity.

Beckmann, born in 1884, was a medical orderly on the Belgian front in the Great War. He experienced first hand the disaster's physical and human rubble. The horrors led to a nervous breakdown and found their way permanently into his work. The faces, the flayed and torn bodies, and the clutter of ominous ritual objects, fill, as he wrote in 1914 on the brink of the hostilities, "infinite space, which one must constantly pile with any kind of junk, so that one will not see behind it the terrible depth." For Beckmann, that "terrible depth" is the very space of the human arena, a seething ground of aggression and passion which can momentarily be tied up in the symbology of religion and culture but is ultimately not susceptible to the curbs of reason.

A graph of Beckmann's state of mind can be tracked in the self-portraits, master works of that genre, as Beckmann seems to surrender his own psychic health to the "depths" he insisted on depicting. His vulnerabilities are poignantly displayed in the 1917 Self Portrait with Red Scarf, painted after his breakdown. A tense, haggard Beckmann is pinioned at the window of his studio, his right arm pushing against the picture frame, the left bent at the elbow in a ninety-degree angle that mimics the entrapping, boxed-in effect of the lower right side corner of the canvas. …