Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe and Max Beckmann: A Creative Sympathy

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe and Max Beckmann: A Creative Sympathy

Article excerpt

This is the story of the relationship between two men who never met. As one can imagine, it falls a bit into the detective genre. Thomas Wolfe and Max Beckmann spoke different languages and led very different lives. But after reading Look Homeward, Angel, in the spring of 1947, when he was sixty-two, Beckmann saw himself as thinking like the book's creator. Painter and writer shared, for example, the commitment to an autobiographical art: Beckmann painted more than eighty self-portraits, and most of his works came directly from his life. Both men also saw their work as a means to bridge time and space. In Beckmann's mind, he and Wolfe shared a creative sympathy.

Born in 1884, Max Beckmann achieved significant recognition in Germany when in his twenties. With The Sinking of the Titanic (1912, Saint Louis Art Museum) he portrayed contemporary history on a large scale and endeavored to create a great German art, not unlike Wolfe's ambition to write something grand and American. During World War I Beckmann served as a volunteer medical orderly. After the war, his individual style matured, and he came to understand his artistic task as a quest to fathom the self, and develop a personal mythology. The Dream (1921, Saint Louis Art Museum) takes place at the Berlin train station and reveals the important role dreams play for the artist. For the next two decades Beckmann furthered his career, especially in Germany and Paris, teaching and traveling. His reputation as painter and printmaker was established, until the rising power of Hitler brought Beckmann's career in Germany to an abrupt end. Immediately after the inclusion of his works in the Nazi-organized "Degenerate Art Exhibition," (1) he and his wife, Mathilde, called "Quappi," departed for Amsterdam, with hopes of going on to the United States. But visa papers did not arrive, so they were caught in Amsterdam, where he painted for the next decade. After the war, they could travel again, and, in 1947, they visited their favorite holiday destination, the Cote d'Azur. It was on that last journey to Nice that Beckmann read Look Homeward, Angel. Soon after returning to the Netherlands, Beckmann decided that they should move to the United States. Friends secured him a job at Washington University in St. Louis. After two years there, the Beckmanns moved to New York City in 1949, where Max died of heart failure on 27 December 1950.

Beckmann's art defies stylistic classification. He called it the "realism of the transcendental." It is best described by his own words: "Art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement; for transfiguration, not for the sake of play. It is the quest of our self that drives us along the eternal and never-ending journey we must all make." (2) Wolfe's own dedication to the inward journey resonates in these words from Look Homeward, Angel: "I shall find no door in any city. But in the city of myself, upon the continent of my soul, I shall find the forgotten language, the lost world, a door where I may enter, and music strange as any ever sounded.... " (3)

In addition to being a visual artist, Beckmann was a man of letters. He wrote two plays (by 1923) and extensive letters, kept diaries, and published numerous public artistic statements. Like Wolfe's character Eugene Gant, Beckmann escaped into books where he found literary friends. He said that in the war he "would not shoot Frenchmen, I have learned so much from them. And not Russians either: Dostoevski is my Friend." (4) Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and theosophical texts were also at the top of his reading list. Beckmann's literary journey is documented in the published inventory of his library. (5) Begun in Germany, then transported to Amsterdam, St. Louis, and finally New York, his library included more than 500 volumes. Books on art and literature appear in about equal number; there are also books on philosophy, Eastern thought, psychology, and a little physics. …

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