Max Beckmann: The Leader of the New Objectivity Movement

German artist Max Beckmann was a major figure of the New Objectivity art movement during the 1920s. His work was defined by an unsettling mood and disturbing imagery.

Mar 3, 2023By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts
max beckmann new objectivity movement


Max Beckmann was a German artist who explored many artistic mediums. He was a painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer. While others categorized him as an Expressionist, he denied this and disapproved of the movement’s charged emotionalism. To counter this, he became one of the pioneers of New Objectivity in the 1920s, which emphasized the representation of harsh realities and the brutality of war. As he evolved, he strayed away from reinventing biblical narratives to fulfill a deeper purpose and instead painted exactly the image he wanted to convey with no hidden meaning. His involvement in WWI changed his outlook on humanity, leading him to embrace politics and integrate the social dilemmas and injustices he observed into his work.


Max Beckmann’s Early Career 

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Max Beckmann by H. Erfurth, Late 1920s, via Spiegel


Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1884 to an upper-middle-class family. Beckmann had a rebellious spirit from a young age, running away from a Protestant boarding school at the age of ten. He was known for drawing during class instead of paying attention. As an adolescent he began sketching self-portraits and decided to pursue the path of becoming an artist without his parent’s approval. He was rejected from one art school he applied to, but he persevered and entered Weimar-Saxon Grand Ducal Art Academy in 1900. With Norwegian realist painter Carl Frithjof Smith as a professor, Beckmann’s appreciation for art that genuinely depicted reality grew. After graduation, he traveled to Paris and became inspired by Post-Impressionists like Paul Cezanne.


He moved to Berlin in 1904 and continued to explore different places abroad like Florence, where he was influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche and artists like Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch. The first art exhibition he was involved with happened in 1906 with the Berlin Secession, which strived to revolt against conservative state-run art institutions. His first solo exhibition in 1913 was made possible by Paul Cassirer, a well-renowned dealer of modern art and member of the Secession. Cassirer also published the first monograph about Beckmann the same year.


The Impact of War

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Small Death Scene by Max Beckmann, 1906, via Wikimedia


In 1914, Beckmann became an army volunteer at the start of World War I. He helped in hospitals as a trained medical orderly until he was discharged a year later due to a mental breakdown. He moved to Frankfurt and returned to his art, which reflected the horrors he had witnessed in the war. This experience would impact his work for the rest of his career. He wrote a manifesto in 1918 in which he outlined his aim to be part of all the misery that is coming. Political, social, and economic issues existing in the wake of the war in Germany were heavily explored in his work. He became known as one of the pioneers of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, which was developed to portray the weak state of the country in post-war conditions.

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beckmann perseus last duty
Perseus’ Last Duty by Max Beckmann, 1949, via Fine Art America


His career continued to progress, from teaching at the Stadel Art School in Frankfurt starting in 1925 to being showcased in his first exhibition in the United States the following year. However, once Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Beckmann was dismissed from teaching and his paintings hung in German museums were returned to him. Modern art began to be looked down upon in Germany with increasing animosity, so he and his wife Mathilde Quappi von Kaulbach, an opera singer, moved to Amsterdam in 1937 and lived in exile until death.


Beckmann proceeded to produce a prolific number of paintings, prints, and drawings even after his displacement. Ten years later, the couple moved to the United States because Beckmann received an offer to teach at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1949, he began working at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and remained in New York City until he died of a heart attack a year later.


What Is New Objectivity?

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Dr. Mayer-Hermann by Otto Dix, 1926, via MoMA, New York


Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, was an art movement that originated in Germany in the 1920s. It was formed after World War I and it contrasted the Expressionistic style that was popular prior to the war. The romantic and mystical nature of Expressionism wasn’t applicable to the poverty-stricken state of the country. A desire to depict the grim reality of post-war despair was growing, and artists began to distance themselves from expressing their inner emotions and feelings solely.


Dadaism was born in Zurich in 1916 and was characterized by similar intentions defined by cynicism and rebellion against the war. Expressionists like Max Pechstein and Cesar Klein were influenced by Dada and created the artist collective called The November Group in 1918 in Berlin. The group included over 100 members in Germany who all sought to integrate a new version of objective realism into their work. Curator Gustav F Hartlaub coordinated an exhibition in 1925 in Mannheim called Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. Several artists from The November Group were showcased in it, including Max Beckmann.


Beckmann’s Involvement and the Movement’s Legacy

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The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse by George Grosz, 1927 via Rosanna Fumai


Beckmann belonged to the subgroup of the movement known as the Verists, who were the left-wing, more contemporary followers of New Objectivity. Their signature characteristic was graphically illustrating the anguish of those affected by the war, often in a satirical manner. The artists strove to expose the corruption of modern society at the time. In 1919, Beckmann wrote, “My pictures are a reproach to God for all that he does wrong.” The members of the right-wing counterpart were considered Classicists, who still depicted reality in a rational sense but without the focus on social issues.


However, in the early 1930s, Nazism provided no space for New Objectivity. The Reich minister of interior, Wilhelm Frick, rejected the movement by announcing its completely un-German constructs. Many artists, including Beckmann, had their work destroyed or mocked in the Degenerate Art exhibit in 1937 organized by the Nazis. This is when Beckmann fled to Amsterdam with his wife to escape the ridicule that ensued.


Although the movement seemed to disappear due to force by the government, artists continued to create work in secret, and its legacy has lived on. For example, Magical Realism was established in 1925 to initially describe New Objectivity. In later years, the term was more directed toward artwork that joined the realism of New Objectivity with surrealism. Beckmann’s later paintings are considered examples of Magical Realism. New Objectivity is also credited with inspiring Photorealism and Hyperrealism of the 1960s as well as Capital Realism that originated in Germany in the 1950s.


Beckmann’s Transition to the Realism of New Objectivity 

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Adam and Eve by Max Beckmann, 1917, via Wikiart


Before volunteering as a medical orderly in the war, Beckmann’s work was created with a light palette and the intentional placement of figures in a landscape. He focused on large-scale narrative scenes, such as Young Men by the Sea (1905), one of his earliest recorded paintings. However, the trauma of seeing the terror of war first-hand transformed his art into a style far more grotesque.


In 1917, he painted Adam and Eve, one of his first creations after returning from serving his country. The color palette is neutral, using gray tones to evoke a depressing mood. The colors are just one element that symbolizes a deeper meaning; this profound significance of all components wasn’t as apparent in his early work. Next to the two figures representing Adam and Eve are a yellow lily and the red eye of a serpent, the only two colorful objects in the scene. These two motifs symbolize the never-ending presence of both the hope for salvation and the inevitable evil that befalls humanity.


The deformed nature of the figures conjures thoughts of pain and suffering. Considering the context of this piece’s time of creation, one interpretation of the presented allegory is it’s an ominous foretelling of the destruction that ensues from war. The cruelty exhibited and the widespread violence in the country that Beckmann directly observed manifested as despair within him, which was depicted through his work.


Max Beckmann and the Grotesque 

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The Night by Max Beckmann, 1918, via Imgur


One year later, he created a painting called The Night, which displays the same bleak mood as Adam and Eve in an increasingly gruesome way. Many who had portrayed the horrors of war presented the content in a way that potentially inspired pacifism or a productive call to action. For Beckmann, he saw no higher purpose, no reason to replace the literal suffering he witnessed with biblical images of souls wallowing in hell as others did. The result is a deeply disturbing visual of agony and torture, all the more terrifying due to its foundation in reality.


The composition is intentionally orderly, which enhances the unsettling mood. The graphic actions of the figures are chaotic, yet each fills the empty spaces perfectly. This arrangement of the scene represents the fact that although each character’s behavior is shocking and repulsive, moments like this were not far from the norm at the time he painted the piece. One man appears far too calm to be torturing another while the woman on the right has a look of apathetic defeat as she accepts the sexual assault of the woman in front of her. Beckmann depicts the desensitization of humanity he observed around him as a result of war.


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Self-portrait by Max Beckmann, 1937, via Art Institute of Chicago


Also known for his candid self-portraits and allegorical triptychs, Beckmann was an incredibly prolific artist whose honest portrayal of reality is startling and unnerving to observe. By stripping away his emotions attached to a situation, his painted scenes are objective, leaving the consumer to feel what naturally is evoked when looking at them. His creations provide insight into a society damaged by war and the suffering of the people that ensues. His legacy lives on through museum exhibitions and a long-lasting impact on artists and movements in both Europe and the United States.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.