What’s the story behind Max Beckmann’s The Beginning?
- Chaos and control in the living room
- Puss in Boots takes one for the team
- Future fantasies behind a window
Life passes in stages and The Beginning depicts them for his own boyhood. He fills this triptych with colorful chaos, tense order, and poignant symbols. These elements tell his particular story with brash, full blown frankness. Beckmann wasn’t afraid to show the ugly parts of life and even seemed to relish them. We see that throughout this masterpiece. His boyhood foils and fears spread across the canvas in slashes of black.
In the panel on our left, Beckmann shows the future through a window. The black bars that hold each windowpane also keep us back, and separate from the scene. This distance between viewer and scene works as a reminder that time must pass before this future can happen. The left panel represents his fantasy about what the future will bring. It also fits into the painting’s theme. The future begins with our fantasy of how it could be. These things start as a seed of an idea and image. We see the generosity of this master painter in sharing these parts of himself with us.
But the core of the painting lies at its chaotic center. That’s where we find Beckmann’s wild childhood. He unleashes a full throttle child beast onto a living room held hostage by his boyhood. The white rocking horse dwarfs his family as he rides, one handed. He wields a sword in his other hand. It’s a ruined scene and this boy’s the destroyer. Even his own childhood isn’t safe in Max Beckmann’s The Beginning. The sword cuts down Puss in Boots, which represents a classic children’s story. His careless violence with the sword separates him from his innocent, childhood self.
There’s an irony to this because the painting’s adult creator portrays himself as the scene’s destructive force. Beckmann builds and ruins the story all at once. These opposites flow through every painting process. An artist may paint over a scene or even wipe it away several times before it works for them. Creative acts often include elements of breakdown as well as building. In many ways this parallels life. The painting reminds us of this with its layers of destruction and creation. Many children wreck their toys as they move into puberty. The painter details this rite of passage for us to represent himself growing up both as an artist and boy.
Max Beckmann paints a passage to adulthood
Children dominate the scenes in Max Beckmann’s The Beginning. Yet every adult present appears to want control. For instance, the woman at the forefront of the center panel appears to smoke a long white pipe. An elderly woman with a grey bun holds the end of the pipe. Is she lighting or extinguishing it? Either way, both of these women seem to focus on what they can control in the scene rather than the wild child they can’t.
The red-haired lady lounging across the very front also shows a large swath of skin, a thick thigh. It’s as if she wants to distract our attention from the misbehaving boy behind her. The largeness of her hand on this thigh compared to her tiny other hand, indicates where she wants us to look.
In fact, hands are key to the control theme in the central panel of Beckmann’s The Beginning. A red-faced man in a stodgy suit holds his hands up to the rocking horse. The man’s face is stern and he seems to be trying to spank or stop the steed. He’s attempting to control the boy in this indirect manner. The man doesn’t address the boy to his face or speak to him. Instead, he stands behind the boy and attempts a quiet and controlled subtle intervention. Of course, this doesn’t seem to work. After all, the boy has a sword. It doesn’t matter how big this man’s hands are. They can’t beat a sword.
With these two impotent characters, Beckmann may wish to represent his parents. There’s also a clown hiding behind a red curtain in a closet to our right in the center panel of Max Beckmann’s The Beginning. Clowns can be creepy and this one’s no exception. However, the clown works more as a symbol than a creeper in this painting.
That’s because the pink triangle hat and pants could be symbolic. After all, Beckmann painted this in 1949, only a few years after the conclusion of WWII. In that war the nazis assigned pink triangles to gay prisoners. This clown character also holds a mirror toward us. It’s as if the clown tells viewers we should look at ourselves rather than judge what we see in the closet. That’s a lesson many of us learn as we pass from childhood into adulthood.
The final panel to our right points to school days. Boys sit in tight pews with an authority figure at the head of the class. A floating globe and large bust beside this teacher appear to dominate his smaller, slouched, figure. The globe represents worldliness beyond the classroom and the bust points to artistic pursuits. So, Beckmann reveals here that the outside world and art mattered more to him than his studies.
But my favorite part of this panel sits right at the front where one boy passes a note to another. If you look closely, it’s a drawing of a topless woman. This amusing detail reminds us what this masterpiece truly means. Becoming an adult can be challenging and many will try to control our passage. But it’s also a fun and adventurous journey of discovery.
The Beginning shares his sense of humor as well as his bold imagery and emotional flare. We get a glimpse into what it was like for Beckmann to grow into the unabashed artist he became. For all its dark symbolism, chaos, and destruction, it’s also clear that the painter didn’t let any of this hold him back. This painting focuses a lens on the beginning of an artist’s unique and extraordinary vision.
Max Beckmann’s The Beginning – FAQs
What kind of painter was Max Beckmann?
Max Beckmann was a German Expressionist painter. He stands out in art history for his bold takes on the ugly side of human nature. For instance, his artworks explore themes of war, assault, rape, and tragedy. Beckmann channeled his experiences from both world wars into his symbolic compositions.
In the first world war he fought as a soldier. Then Beckmann developed as a painter until the Nazis labeled his artwork as “degenerate” during the second world war. He was then exiled from his native Germany first to Amsterdam and then the United States.
Where can I see Max Beckmann’s The Beginning in person?
You can see Max Beckmann’s The Beginning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Check it out in Gallery 900. It’s a stunner at about six by ten feet in vivid color. I highly recommend this experience because it’s a powerful, emotional masterpiece in person.
Enjoyed this analysis of Max Beckmann’s The Beginning?
Check out more essays about German painters.
See Max Beckmann’s The Beginning at the Met online
Belting, Hans (1989). Max Beckmann: Tradition as a Problem of Modern Art. Preface by Peter Selz. New York.
von Wiese, Stephan (1978). Max Beckmann : Das zeichnerische Werk 1903–1925. Düsseldorf.
Françoise Forster-Hahn: Max Beckmann in Kalifornien. Exil, Erinnerung und Erneuerung (München / Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag 2007)
Michael Kimmelman (June 27, 2003), “Chuckling Darkly at Disaster”, The New York Times.
Tobias G. Natter (ed.): The Self-Portrait: From Schiele to Beckmann., exhibition catalog Neue Galerie New York, Munich e. a.: Prestel, 2019