Signed and dated Beckmann B.36 (lower right)
Oil on canvas
Rudolf Freiherr von Simolin, Berlin and Seeseiten (acquired from the artist in Zürich in 1938 and thence by descent)
Munich, Haus der Kunst; Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, Max Beckmann zum Gedächtnis 1884-1950, 1951, no. 103
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Max Beckmann, 1951-52, no. 36
Braunschweig, Kunstverein Städtisches Museum und Haus Salve Hospes; Bremen, Kunsthalle, Max Beckmann, 1953-54, no. 51 (titled Selbstporträt mit Glaskugel)
Zürich, Kunsthaus, Max Beckmann, 1884-1950, 1955-56, no. 74
Basel, Kunsthalle, Ausstellung Max Beckmann, 1956, no. 64
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Max Beckmann, 1956, no. 54
Karlsruhe, Badischer Kunstverein, Max Beckmann – Das Portrait, Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, 1963, no. 40
Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne; Munich, Haus der Kunst; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Max Beckmann, 1968-69, no. 58 (no. 56 in Munich)
Hamburg, Kunsthalle; Staatsgalerie, Moderner Kunst, Max Beckmann, Selbstbildnisse, 1993, no. 18
Riehen, Beyeler Fondation, Expressive!, 2003
Stephan Lackner, Das Welttheater des Malers Max Beckmann, 1938, discussed
Benno Reifenberg and Wilhelm Hausenstein, Max Beckmann, Munich, 1949, no. 355, illustrated pl. 59
Oto Bihalji-Merin, Savremena Nemacka Umetnost, Belgrade, 1955, illustrated pl. XXXII
Günter Busch, Mededelingen Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, vol. 12, no. 1, The Hague, 1957, no. 7, illustrated p. 10
Lothar-Günther Buchheim, Max Beckmann, Feldafing, 1959, no. 61, illustrated
Günter Busch, Max Beckmann Eine Einführung, Munich, 1960, illustrated pl. 12
Sele Arte, vol. 9, Florence, March-April 1961, no. 50, illustrated p. 56 (titled Autoritratto)
Gotthard Jedlicka, "Max Beckmann in seinen Selbstbildnissen", Blick auf Beckmann Dokumente und Vorträge, Munich, 1962, discussed pp. 124-125, illustrated pl. 58
Paul Overy, Apollo, vol. 81, London, March 1965, mentioned p. 120
Stephan Lackner, Ich erinnere mich gut an Max Beckmann, Mainz, Kupferberg, 1967, pp. 38 & 62
Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann, Memories of a Friendship, Coral Gables, 1969, discussed pp. 41 & 59
Leopold Zahn, Das Kunstwerk, vol. 22, 1968-69, illustrated p. 54
Beaux-Arts, Brussels, January 1969, illustrated on the cover
Herbert Schade, Stimmen der Zeit, vol. 94, 1969, illustrated pl. 4
Charles S. Kessler, Max Beckmann’s Triptychs, Cambridge, 1970, p. 156
Friedhelm Wilhelm Fischer, Max Beckmann Symbol und Weltbild, Munich, 1972, illustrated p. 119
Erhard and Barabra Göpel, Max Beckmann, Katalog der Gemälde, vol. I, Bern, 1976, no. 434, catalogued p. 286; vol. II, no. 434, illustrated pl. 148
Hildegard Zenser, Max Beckmann, Selbstbildnisse, Munich, 1984, illustrated pl. 33
Fritz Erpel, Max Beckmann, Munich, 1985, no. 145, illustrated p. 151
Peter Selz, Max Beckmann,The Self-Portraits, New York, 1992, illustrated p. 64
Reinhard Spieler, Max Beckmann – Der Weg zum Mythos, Cologne, 1994, illustrated p. 123
As an artist with one of the most expressive and imposing countenances of the 20th century, Beckmann could not resist rendering his own image in countless compositions throughout his career (see fig. 1 & 2). Those pictures that he explicitly intended as self-portraits were often the most psychologically intense and thought-provoking of these images. Beckmann painted this portrait of himself as a brooding sooth-sayer in 1936, only months before he and his wife Quappi fled Germany for Holland on the eve of the Second World War. Selbstbildnis mit Glaskugel (Self-Portrait with Crystal Ball) is a powerful testament of the artist’s determination to persevere during these troubled times. And perhaps more than any other picture that he completed while living in Berlin, it is a bellwether of the state of Modern art in the Third Reich. Earlier in 1936 government authorities shut down Beckmann’s exhibition space at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, claiming that his bold compositions were examples of “degenerate art.” Undeterred and perhaps even emboldened by this affront, Beckmann went on to paint this picture, in which he contemplates his fate in a crystal ball.
Because of this picture and a select number of self-portraits that are now in museums throughout the world, Max Beckmann’s face has become an emblem of 20th century art. In his memoirs, Stephan Lackner wrote about the imposing figure of this man: “Beckmann’s appearance was incredibly impressive. Above his athletic, massive body, his large head loomed like one of those rocks left by a prehistoric glacier on top of a hill” (Stephan Lackner, op. cit., p. 29).
By their very nature, Beckmann’s self-portraits were his most direct and explicit mode of personal expression. And the objects he chose to depict in these pictures, like the crystal ball in the present work, are of particular importance to his message. Symbolism and iconography played a crucial role in Beckmann’s compositions throughout his career and were of great significance during the 1930s. Images of double-entendre were commonly used in the 1920s by the artists of the New Objectivity movement, but Beckmann, who did not affiliate himself with any artistic group, used symbolic objects to express his own political ideas. In his self-portraits from the late 1930s Beckmann usually included some kind of prop or instrument as a veiled reference to his struggle as an avant-garde artist working within the Third Reich (see fig. 3). The horn in his Selbstbildnis mit Horn (see fig. 4), for example, is a symbol of the man’s triumphant defiance in the face of National Socialism.
The present picture, completed when the artist was still in Berlin and struggling in the midst of this oppression, is equally loaded with political significance. Here he casts himself in the roll of a sorcerer, brooding over events that are about to unfold. Beckmann presented the theme of the crystal ball gazer in another picture around this time (see fig. 5). A strong preoccupation with the unknown was evidently on his mind. Stephan Lackner reflected on the crisis of this era, considering that “Many ‘people of good will’ predicted that Hitler could not stay in power much longer, that the rearming Third Reich would soon be bankrupt, or that the radicalism of the Nazis would play itself out and give way to moderation” (Stephan Lackner, Max Beckmann, Memories of a Friendship, Coral Gables, 1969, p. 24).
This picture may also relate to Beckmann’s specific concerns regarding the future of his art. In an essay written two years after it was painted, Lackner suggests in hindsight that this contemplative figure was divining the genesis of the fantastical pictures that he would complete in the years to come: “A magician in timeless garb stands before us, holding a large, shimmering crystal ball. From deeper sockets the glance does not challenge the viewer any more, the shadowy eyes look beyond actuality into more distant works. They now see oceans welling up with curved horizons, sunken islands, half-human and superhuman creatures from forgotten fables, titans in forbidden incest, kingly demigods looming in the dusk of prehistory: the basic symbols of life” (ibid., p. 59).
In addition to its symbolic connotations, this picture provides examples of the swirling strokes and strong formal structure that defined Beckmann’s best compositions (see fig. 6). Peter Selz described it in the following terms: “Dominated by greenish-blue colors, Self-Portrait with Crystal Ball is based on the geometry of the sphere: the roundness of the ball is echoed in the half-circles of shoulder and lips and again in the artist’s forehead, as well as in the dark, almost sinister, cavities of his eyes. Beckmann’s eyes do not look into the crystal ball, nor are they directed at the viewer. Their gaze goes beyond, into unknown and threatening figures. Although the artist holds the means of divination in his very hands, he is helpless and seems to recede into the deep black space behind him” (Peter Selz, Max Beckmann, The Self-Portraits, New York, 1992, pp. 63-65).
The first owner of this picture was Beckmann’s loyal patron, Rudolf Freiherr von Simolin (see fig. 7). In 1938, Beckmann’s friend Stephan Lackner arranged for some galleries in Zürich and Basel to stage exhibitions of the artist’s recent work. Beckmann, who was living in exile in Amsterdam at the time, came to the Zürich opening. To his great surprise, he was greeted by von Simolin, who had come all the way from his home in Berlin. Despite the German government’s vehement opposition to Beckmann’s “degenerate art,” von Simolin purchased Selbstbildnis mit Glaskugel and bravely took it with him back to Germany.
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