Joshua Hagler: Max Beckmann’s take on violence of mind
American Contemporary artist Joshua Hagler is known for his large-scale oil paintings depicting chaotic arrangements of human figures, often psychologically charged and in varying states of tension and conflict. Hagler interrogates his own middle American upbringing, the 19th-century exploration of North America, modern science fiction and the techniques and traditions of Italian religious art. He responds with grand paintings which present an excavation of time — layers of semi-realistic figures and historic scenes are distorted by marks, smears, cuts and puddles which render the images partially abstract, and allude to memory. “I want the paintings to have the feeling of vague recollection, a memory that starts to form but disappears,” Hagler says.
This internal conflict interwoven with historical narrative has strong affinities with the works of Max Beckmann.
Max Beckmann is one of the great contemporary artists of 20th century Germany. A figurative painter with a knack for creating complex narratives adorned with vibrant colours, Beckmann’s work is heavily prompted by the violence of the world wars and the political turmoil that followed suit. Beckmann’s post World War I work was consonant with German Expressionism and Cubism; it contained distinctly cynical motifs concerning life in the ill-fated Weimar Republic, acting as a bold form of protest against the hostile conditions of post-war urban life. Max Beckmann’s paintings were denounced in the early 1930s by the National Socialist Press, after which he was dismissed from his teaching position in Frankfurt in 1933, which subsequently led to him fleeing to continue his work in Amsterdam in 1937, ultimately settling in the US from 1948 until his death in 1950.
This piece, written by Hagler, explores how his work is rooted in that of Beckmann’s, highlighting his connection to some of the most influential and poignant works by the German artist.
Joshua Hagler: Responding to the works of Max Beckmann
In the summer of 2017, I visited the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and discovered what is now my favourite permanent collection of any modern art museum I’ve yet visited. German expressionism had long been an area of interest for me but seeing so much of this work in person at one time made a profound impact.
One painting in particular captured my attention more than any other and is one which pops into my mind nearly every day. This was Great Scene of Agonyor Large Death Scene painted by Max Beckmann in 1906 when he was only 22 years old in reaction to the death of his mother. When I saw the painting, I was on my way to do a residency in Brittany, France, and it immediately influenced the first two paintings I made there: Waiting for Sunrise and Waiting for Sunset. I believe it also had an impact on a new painting of mine depicting my father in the hospital following a cancer-related surgery.
Max Beckmann Great Scene of Agony, 1906
Since that time, my interest in Beckmann has only intensified. As I learn about his life and career, I can’t help but find it relevant to what is happening culturally and politically here in the U.S. and around the world.
Recently, I made a new painting which directly references three of Beckmann’s. I began by making three small-scale studies, one for each of his. The first study was of the famous painting The Night painted in 1918–19. Following his return home from serving as a medic in World War I, he suffered from a mental breakdown and only returned to painting in 1917. Like so many of his works, the painting depicts a violent scene — very much a spectacle — the positioning of the figures posed and deliberate, almost as if it were theatre, something Beckmann himself was very interested in.
The Night, Max Beckmann 1919
First Study, Joshua Hagler
The second study I made was from his paintingThe Town (City Night), made in the last year of his life, 1950. Again, both the sense of violence and spectacle are depicting a nude female figure at its center, and a man holding a sword directly above her.
Max BeckmannThe Town, 1950
Second Study, Joshua Hagler
The final study I made was of a very small watercolour, which appears to have been itself a study for a larger work which was never made. It’s calledThe Dogs Grow Larger, painted in 1947. Like the others there is a sense of violent spectacle, and again, at its centre, a nude woman. The assailant, in this case, seems to be some kind of monster, which we see as a dog, I think, mainly because of the title.
The Dogs Grow Larger, Max Beckmann, 1947
Third Study, Joshua Hagler
Once I made these three studies, I recreated each at a very large scale on canvas, layering one of top of the next, as is often my practice, and then stripping away large sections of each layer to reveal the previous beneath. What I ended up with was, as always, a discovery, and quite a bit of chaos, something which points both toward and away from where Beckmann left off. I titled my painting, The Call and the Called Out (The Dogs Grow Larger,) as a wink to his watercolour and to the fact that the dogs did, in fact, grow larger.
I don’t know what Beckmann himself intended for us to feel when seeing these violent spectacles, except, perhaps, what he might have felt making them. Reading about Beckmann and his life, I’ve come to feel that the violence in his work is not simply about the wars, both of which affected his life profoundly, but about the violence present in all of us. I think of this as a violence of mind.
Responding to his work, I couldn’t help but think of the Me Too movement and of the women in my own life who have suffered because of the violence of men. I also can’t help but be self-conscious about the fact that I can’t account for Beckmann’s intentions toward or feeling for women when he made these paintings, and that I am a man responding to another man who made paintings in which women are being attacked. But the matter only becomes more complicated. The birth of call-out culture as a by-product is itself controversial, and certainly prone to exploitation and spectacle. In an era of uber capitalism and Trumpism, in which no message can be sent or received outside the sphere of the spectacle, I feel a sense of loss — a loss of intimacy, of privacy, of a broader humanism. Beyond that I feel confused, ill at ease, and, at times, isolated. I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings. There is such an incredible divide between the overly certain political language we use in public and on social media and the kinds of language — the uncertainty we allow — in private and among those we trust. And there seems, too, less and less trust between us. This is the backdrop against which I’m looking at Beckmann’s work, in addition to the cultural context of his own time and making my own.
Thinking about Beckmann’s title for an easily overlooked watercolour, I wonder, finally, what are the dogs? For me, perhaps the dogs have something to do with that which hasn’t yet fully arrived on the scene, something on the horizon waiting for the right moment to mature into chaos. Maybe too, the dogs are something ancient, which have been here all along, and, from time to time, are unearthed and fed. Beckmann didn’t go to the trouble of spelling it out. If I thought there was a simple explanation, I suspect I’d lose interest in Beckmann’s work and would certainly would lose the motivation to respond to it in my own. I like to remember that the expressionists, in general, were painters who made their work out of necessity in a repressive culture which hoped to control what artists made and how they made it. I find we are challenged with that kind of repression and censorship here and now. I find signs of authoritarianism not just on the world political stage, but on smaller stages, on college campuses and in the art world. In a world where everyone is afraid of everyone else, anyone with unpopular ideas is a potential threat or enemy. So, perhaps, in the end, we’re all the dogs, and in growing larger to protect ourselves, we betray our values and become the authoritarians we once spoke out against. I wonder what Max Beckmann would think about that.