Last week between meetings we had a couple of hours free to visit the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, located just across from Harvard Yard. This gem of a museum has a fantastic collection of German Expressionist art and sculpture. The first painting the visitor encounters is Max Beckmann's 1927 Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. This iconic portrait from the late Weimar Republic depicts the modern man: confident - even arrogant - gazing directly at the viewer, calmly holding a lighted cigarette. The formal attire of the tuxedo only adds to the feeling of superiority. Here is a man who clearly has arrived. And yet, there is something out of place in the face.
Years later, when addressing his first art class in the United States, Beckmann said:
If you want to reproduce an object, two elements are required: first, the identification with the object must be perfect; and second, its should contain, in addition, something quite different. The second element is difficult to explain. Almost as difficult as to discover one's self. In fact, its just this element of your own self that we are all in search of.
It is the shadow across the eyes and the upper half of the face in Self-Portrait in Tuxedo that brings this "second element" into play. The viewer sense that the man is an impostor; the formal dress is a form of camouflage, allowing him to observe the world from the sidelines- unnoticed.
How did the painting and the other treasures from the Weimar era find their way to Harvard. When Self-Portrait in Tuxedo was first exhibited in 1927 it was immediately recognized as an important work. The famed art critic Julius Meier-Graefe acquired the painting and it was put on display - in its own room - in the National Gallery in Berlin. But Beckmann, along with many other great artists, was considered "degenerate" by the Nazis, so Self-Portrait in Tuxedo was displayed in the infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst Exhibition in Munich. After that, there was no longer a market for Beckmann's paintings in Germany, so many of these invaluable paintings were sold at fire-sale prices to art dealers abroad. Harvard was lucky to acquire this painting - along with many other works by great artists such as Franz Marc, Käthe Kollwitz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1941. The Nazis' hatred of modernist art (see my review of Artists under Hitler) was the best thing that ever happened to American museums and art collectors.
It is interesting to compare Self-Portrait in Tuxedo with another painting - Self-Portrait with Horn - which Beckmann painted a decade later in exile. In Self-Portrait with Horn Beckmann is no longer the self-confident, aloof artist in the tuxedo. He is in a strange dressing gown that has a timeless, harlequin-like quality. The hunting horn, as well, appears as if from the distant past. The artist is staring off to the side expectantly, waiting for an echo of the horn call he has just sounded. Has he sounded the alarm of the war to come? But the artist seems enveloped in silence; the warning will not be heeded. The artist's huge hand is suspended at the center of the frame, its creative work is powerless to penetrate the silence or stave off the horrors to come.
This painting can be viewed at the Neue Galarie in New York City, just a few steps away from Central Park, where Max Beckmann keeled over a died of a heart attack in 1950. If you are not able to visit these museums to see the paintings, you can visit the Max Beckmann pages at the amazing Web site Artsy, which has images of Beckmann's work and of all the great artists.