M ax Beckmann’s powerful Reclining Nude, Sharply Foreshortened was painted in the year after the artist arrived in the USA. His landing in New York in September 1947 was the fulfilment of a long-held dream, as he had always considered America the best country to spend the final years of his life in. With characteristic black humour, he described his odyssey to the USA as “the last great sensation that life has to offer me – apart from death.”
Beckmann had been forced into political exile in 1937. Together with his wife Quappi, the artist had fled Germany for Amsterdam after hearing Hitler’s vicious attack on modern art and artists in his radio speech celebrating the inauguration of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich. Aiming to travel on to America, Beckmann secured a teaching position in Chicago only to find that his visa application was declined, which left him stranded in Amsterdam during the war years. Despite a network of loyal supporters and friends Beckmann found himself in a highly precarious position after Nazi Germany invaded Holland in 1940. A born adventurer and man of the world, Beckmann used to make local journeys on international trains bound for Brussels or Paris, to give himself the illusion of going somewhere. But his physical confinement in Holland liberated his imagination and gave rise to one of his greatest periods of invention. Beckmann responded to the human drama of the war with a surge of intense creativity, producing some of his most visionary work. Five of his monumental triptychs, which are among the greatest masterpieces of 20th century art, were painted in exile in Amsterdam.
Beckmann was nevertheless eager to escape war-torn Europe as soon as possible. He envisioned his future in the USA, particularly after the resounding success of his first post-war exhibition at the Curt Valentin Gallery in New York in 1946. The following year Beckmann accepted a temporary teaching post in Saint Louis (standing in for the painter Philip Guston). The mellow old city on the Mississippi suited him well, its combination of provincialism and cosmopolitanism reminding him of the years he had lived and taught in Frankfurt-am-Main before the war. Beckmann’s American sojourn brought him new patrons, new experiences, and invitations to speak and teach across the USA. But the artist never recovered from the extreme anxiety provoked by the war; even in the safe haven of America he suffered from bouts of nervousness exacerbated by poor health.
In 1948, when Beckmann painted Reclining Nude, we find the artist absorbing his new situation while working through images and experiences from his past. The subject of the sensual, semi-nude woman had long held a special place in his work. The pose of Reclining Nude and her state of semi-dress recall earlier paintings by Beckmann such as The Bath (1930), where the towel wrapped around the woman both reveals and conceals her body. The contradictory nature of the reclining nude’s pose – her left arm is lifted to display her face and breasts while her right arm and thigh are pressed protectively against her body – reflects both Beckmann’s understanding of the fraught relationship between the sexes and the complexity of his own personality. Beckman was a sensual man who enjoyed the pleasures of women, wine and good company. There is no other artist of the mid-20th century to rival his sense of the sheer sumptuous beauty of oil paint and luminous colour. But Beckmann also viewed sensual pleasure and worldly beauty as a restriction, against which the artist must fight for the triumph of the spirit and art. The theme of imprisonment and the quest for spiritual freedom lies at the very heart of his work, not least in his Temptation Triptych (1936-7), where we see the artist in the central panel shackled by sensuality and desire.
Reclining Nude harks back to the imagery of Temptation, recalling the beautiful bare-breasted women in all three wings of the triptych, and the powerful, sensual thigh of the ‘goddess-muse’ in Temptation’s central panel. The black bars framing Beckmann’s dark-haired reclining nude hint at the presence of a cage, similar to the open cage containing a woman cradling a fox in Temptation; while the oval frame behind the reclining nude’s right shoulder recalls the mirror in the central panel of the triptych – a symbol of worldly vanity that often accompanies Beckmann’s portrayals of women. Cut in two by a black bar, this divided mirror (like the one in Temptation) can also be understood as a reference to the Kabbalistic symbol of ‘ein-sof,’ representing the infinite, incomprehensible godhead that contrasts with the prison of earthly existence.
In comparison to the complex allegory of Beckmann’s Temptation Triptych, his Reclining Nude Sharply Foreshortened nevertheless has a far more direct, sensual appeal. The woman is on display, like the women behind windows in Amsterdam’s red-light district, close to the artist’s wartime studio, where he is known to have wandered at night. The artist’s celebration of the woman’s dark-haired beauty also signals the new-found sense of release and enjoyment that America brought him. Merging his experiences of the past and the present, Max Beckmann creates a striking image of worldly beauty that nevertheless implies the artist’s deeper, existential concerns.
Jill Lloyd is an independent art historian specialising in 20th-century German and Austrian art. She is a guest curator at the Neue Galerie New York where her forthcoming exhibition, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner opens this Fall. She is the author of numerous publications on German art, including her prize-winning book, German Expressionism, Primitivism and Modernity, London 1991, Max Beckmann L'exil d’Amsterdam, Paris 2004, and Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait with Horn, New York 2008.