This is not at all expected. A German museum bought a self-portrait by Max Beckmann, who was roundly denounced as “degenerate” by German leader Adolf Hitler. Art Daily points out that the Städel Museum in Frankfurt not only acquired the likeness of a Jewish artist but that it also has been collecting his work since 1918, accumulating as many as 11 paintings, two sculptures, and some 100 prints. The Stadel’s website touts its Beckmann holding as one the largest in the world.

Love story

By all accounts, the whole city of Frankfurt is a Beckmann fan, and it didn’t start from some come-to-Jesus moment in the wake of the Third Reich.

The artist's relationship with the city began long before Hitler entered the picture/. In fact, the city loved the artist so much that he was given a studio in the School of Arts and Crafts and a teaching post there where he painted most of the works that earned him a place in art history. The rise of Nazism forced him to flee Germany and moved to the U.S. where he died in 1950.

Proud purchase

Frankfurt isn’t the only Beckmann booster in Germany. According to Monika Grutters, head of the Federal Government for Culture Commission, which helped to fund the purchase of the self-portrait, the work has “national significance.” As she explained, the painting, known as Max Beckmann Self-portrait with Champagne Glass, is meaningful because it was made with the wounds of WWI still raw.

Bad memories

The Beckmann paintings decried by Hitler were his bad memories of WWI when he served as a medic and suffered a nervous breakdown. Large Deathbed Scene is a terrifying vision of people contorted with grief over a loved one lost. More horror can be seen in The Night, a cramped space filled with death and colored a gangrenous green.

The cramped space is intended to heighten the viewer’s discomfort. You could say the same thing about the coloring.

Another nightmare

But WWI wasn’t Beckmann’s only nightmare. To hear his biographer Peter Seltzer tell it, the artist was so mortified by the anti-Semitism plaguing him in Nazi Germany that even after he escaped to the U.S.

he got panic attacks on seeing a patrolman. He described his picture-making goals in the journal Kunst und Kunstler: “I want a style that, in contrast to the art of exterior decoration, will penetrate as deeply as possible into the fundamentals of nature, into the soul of things.”

Wishful thinking

The artist’s statement prompts me to say that while the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture touts its part in buying Max Beckmann Self-portrait with Champagne Glass, the picture is, after all, a picture of celebration after the end of WWI. It would have been a greater testimony to German largess to make the same self-congratulatory fuss over one of Beckmann's bad memory paintings that Hitler denigrated.

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