Max Beckman 1884 – 1950. German The Journey of the Fishes 1934.



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Max Beckman was born in Leipzig, Germany, when he was ten years old his father died and the family moved to Brunswick in Lower Saxony, his parent’s birthplace. Beckman attended the Grandducal Art School in Weimar in 1900, three years later he stayed in Paris and in 1904 he goes to Berlin, then in 1906 he travels to Florence where he spent six months, in 1905 he joins the Die Brucke art group which was formed in Dresden, – there is an earlier blog on this site about that art movement. Beckman’s work is called German Expressionist although his work is figurative, he rejected the description and became a member of a group called New Objectivity along with the painter George Grosz among others, they looked forward with a certain amount of cynicism, having seen the results of war.  Beckman was to become even more outraged by the activities of the Nazis after the 1930s  Returning to his early years, on the move again he  moves to Berlin in 1907, in 1908 he and his wife have a son, Peter.   At the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 he enlists in the German army field hospital corps but on health grounds he is discharged a year later. Max Beckman’s work was influenced by the experiences of living through both world wars, his time in the army was very traumatic and left a lasting impression which impacted on his art producing strong, raw images of people in different places with hard faces without laughter, at the circus, on the dance floor or sitting at a table in a restaurant, he also painted several self portraits.

In 1925 he married for the second time and taught art in Frankfurt for eight years, he exhibited work in New York, Hammheim and in Berlin. In 1933 the Nazi regime dismissed him from his post, Max Beckman moves back again to Berlin, his work is taken out of exhibitions by Hitler and along with the work of other painters that Hitler rejects an exhibition is set up called ‘Degenerate Art’ opened for the public to visit and ridicule. In 1937 Beckman and his wife move to Amsterdam where he is very productive, also spending some time in Paris. During a visit to London he gives a lecture called ‘On My Painting’ it was an anti- Nazi discourse. He exhibits work in the ‘Exhibition of 20th century German Art’. During 1938/9 he lives in Paris, he seems to be a constant wanderer, in 1947 the family moved to New York where he spent more settled years although he toured around the USA and taught in Washington until his death in 1950. I think the life that Beckman led and his experiences, especially the year working in an army hospital are reflected in his work, his paintings are not easy viewing.

I have chosen a painting called The Journey of the Two Fishes,  oil on canvas completed in 1934. We see a couple who are bound together and strapped to two fishes, a strange craft, Beckman’s mythology was his own but he was interested in Babylonian lore and myth which portrays a god named Dagon, a fertility symbol who has the head of a fish and a similar god called Oannes who brought wisdom to humankind. The fishes are diving to the depths of the ocean, the woman stares into the distance, the man is very afraid knowing that they are ‘heading for perdition’, both have removed their masks, their shallow lives revealed, for Beckman the fishes were a symbol of overpowering sexual desires, he had seen medieval paintings depicting the Last Judgement such as in the fresco at Composanto at Pisa, also Hindu myths. The black colour at the lower edge of the work is ‘ a tragic symbol of hopelessness.’ We can also see a glimmer of hope in the sailing ship on the right hand side, its mast is the shape of a cross, a coincidence or not?

Information from wikipedia, the image is taken from the book Beckman, written by S Luckner.

5 thoughts on “Max Beckman 1884 – 1950. German The Journey of the Fishes 1934.

  1. This picture appeals to my imagination. I don’t think the couple are bound to both fishes, Norma. The drapery seems to encircle the ‘human’ couple and the blue fish, but not the pink one with the “nothing-to-do-with-me, guv” look of injured innocence on its ‘face’ (if a fish can be said to have a face). The woman is sitting on the man’s naked back with her knees drawn up. I would describe her facial expression as showing intense interest, the kind of look a woman gives a man that she’s attracted to. Her head is turned to look over her right shoulder, she’s peering sharply (her left eye is visible) through a headband of some kind, that may have slipped.

    The man is naked and well-built (both human figures look sturdy and well-fed). His left hand covers his eyes and his face isn’t visible, but his posture is otherwise quite relaxed, stretched out along the fish’s.

    Both human figures are holding masks in such a way as to reveal their profiles: the woman’s mask seems to be that of a man’s head, strong-featured with a jutting chin and mouth open as if in conversation or possibly smiling, open to ambiguity of interpretation. The man’s mask might be a woman’s profile (it seems to have long hair). The expression has a certain gravity of expression, but it is in repose, and handsome.

    Both masks are on the same vertical axis, and both are facing in the same direction, as if ‘looking away from’ the scene, perhaps disengaged from it. The relationship of the masks to the human figures is ambiguous too. If the humans were wearing them, were they ‘cross-dressing’? Or are they holding each other’s mask? I would conjecture that the artist had something in mind on this issue when composing the painting.

    I note that the woman seems to be wearing some kind of bracelet, or it might be a wristwatch, on her right wrist. It looks quite businesslike, and strong, rather like the woman herself. She has a powerful presence, and this – for me – is matched by the blue fish. Its ‘facial expression’ conveys purpose, as its body conveys strength. It is bigger than the man’s, or at least as big. Of all the creatures it is the one that seems in charge of events, but its purpose is an enigma. Yet the purpose seems to be a cooperative one, as it’s unlikely that the fish could have bound the other figures to itself, yet it has complied. Presumably it could have easily wriggled off.

    I don’t know what the ship conveys to me, but it seems important to the artist who has put it in a prominent position. The mast and cross members don’t seem significant to me of Christianity: for one thing the cross members aren’t aligned with each other. Its symbolism is mysterious, but it seems to me that many artists who paint sea scenes include an obligatory ship as if to emphasise the point “this is the sea, as is proved by having a ship sailing across it”. A woman artist whose work we studied earlier had the creative genius not to fall for this cliche, however (thank goodness). Maybe artistic cliches are a male prerogative!

    1. Hi Peter,
      I always find it fascinating how paintings can provoke different interpretations, again I found yours very intriguing. I agree that the sitting position of the woman portrays her as dominant figure in the painting, the male figure I feel is a tortured being too filled with guilt to show his face, his body firmly bound to the blue fish ( not so obviously to the red fish – both symbols of gods) by strong bonds rather like metal straps. Having read about the trauma Beckman suffered post WW1 I think that in the painting he is attempting to express how we humans can behave sometimes and the depths of brutality we can reach.

      1. I also find your interpretations intriguing, Norma. Your own experiences of sorrow and pain seem to provide you with a deep source of empathy for your fellows and theirs.

        On not too serious a note, I wonder whether you would hazard a guess at what curious constellation of conditions operate in me, to provoke my interpretations. Although I’m a long-term depressive, I see nothing to suggest a dark mood in Beckman’s painting, not even the prone chap covering his eyes.

        The mood of the whole picture is captured, for me, in the face of the pink fish, who is looking directly and wide-eyed at the spectator, with what I perceive as a smile of faux-sympathetic and ironic amusement (as well as mock injured innocence). That fish could have a career in vaudeville! This compares with the purposeful and determined mien of the blue fish. Gods they may be, but they are certainly on my mundane wave-length. These are the kind of Gods I could meet at a bar and share a couple of convivial quarts (of brine) with.

        Or am I just being flipp(er)ant?

        As for Beckman’s life, his peregrinations around Europe and the United States don’t – I think -necessarily mean he was a rolling-stone or couldn’t settle. He seems to have used his time profitably to develop a name for himself as an artist, and – although he died aged 66 – he was still productive as an elderly man, and had seen a lot of the world.

        As I’ve suggested before, I think the biographical narratives that you include with the paintings are too partial to a particular point of view (not necessarily your own, I must say) which seems to be that artists are tortured geniuses who manifest their several traumas in their work. I’d prefer to see the paintings without a lot of background material, as we read the poems without too much report on the circumstances of the poet’s life, which could perhaps be offered after we’ve commented, if necessary.

        I don’t intend this criticism to wound, although I realise it might seem a bit sniffy or contrary. Because I do value and enjoy your blog very much, and your comments, and – of course – the broad spread of artistic endeavour you share with barbarians like me. I’m sure you would want me to speak my mind, and I hope my perspective hovers somewhere around the middle of the strait.

      2. Hi Peter,
        Thank you again for your views, always welcome, keep them coming.

        I should explain that I am a doer, a painter, not really qualified to be a serious art critic, I had not written about art since I was a student until I joined the Middle Way Society fifteen months ago! You will have concluded that I do like to study paintings and the painters who created them, many of whom have influenced the way I paint. I glean much of the information from online sources and my books on art, I can only skim the surface of each subject then add my reaction and aesthetic response. I like the way you look intensely at each painting you write about, you bring the images to life, I tend to look for metaphorical meanings behind some of the paintings I suspect, prone to error at times. I cannot know how decipher the ways by which you reach your conclusions, I did wonder if your comments on the Matisse work hinted at Freudian psychology. I cannot understand my responses come to that, except than to say that what I paint has emotional content – such as paintings of my surroundings and people I love and the use colour which gives me so much pleasure. My next blog is going to be about the ways different painters use colour.

      3. Thanks, Norma. I do find these discussions of artworks stimulating and enjoyable. Your own deep love of art always shows through. I can’t wait to start my drawing classes next year, although I’m anxious about what the teacher will think of my efforts!

        With all the paintings I’ve seen and commented on I discern two levels of appreciative response in myself: one is the whole ‘gesture’ of the artist which doesn’t resonate with me so as to produce metaphors or trigger a bold or ‘primary colour’ emotion. The effect is more like that produced by a swordsman’s flourish, it can’t be captured, only experienced, and let go of.

        The second response is of a delighted detailed scrutiny of the parts that make the whole, and their relationship to each other, and to the whole. As you’ve seen of my comments, it’s a bit like “pickin’ a chicken”. Every bit has a different feel in the mouth and fingers, and a different flavour, different layers of flavour in fact emerge as I chew it over. I can go back to it and find tasty bits I’ve left.

        I looked at more of Beckman’s work, including his pencil drawings, it’s great stuff. I find an enormous vitality to his work, notwithstanding the content, some of which depicts cruelty and suffering. That resonates with my own experience of witnessing suffering and decay and disease in others, and discerning though the cracks and fractures and woundedness the resurgence of life and joy. McGilchrist refers to the right hemisphere as perceiving in terms of circles and of spirals, not straight lines. I understand the world and myself in those terms, at least at some profound level. I’m over-simplifying McGilchrist perhaps, but I think I’ve picked up his meaning (with my left hemisphere?).

        Enough cod-philosophy! Thanks again!

        PS Beckman’s bright jewel-like colours are magnificent, like looking into a bejewelled kaleidoscope.

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