Max Beckmann’s “Self Portrait in Bowler Hat”

A sixteen year old female slowly walks around the art museum. She passes by numerous art works, not paying too much attention. Music cascades through her head as she stops dead in her tracks. In front of her is a drawing of a man with lines and shading that express

mood and emotion, something she has never seen in the art books at school. The piece was Max Beckmann’s “Self Portrait in Bowler Hat”. From the first time I saw this piece over ten years ago I have been infatuated with it. It is often difficult to express what it is about a piece of art that grabs at you and what it exactly is that makes you overjoyed to stare at it for countless hours. One piece that appeals to one could be appalling to another. The best way that I can describe my attraction to this piece is by my first reaction, which was the emotion shown with simple lines. The harsh angles and high contrast still draw me to this piece. I have always enjoyed black and white work because I feel that colour can sometimes be a distraction to the lines and shapes. This initial reaction has led me to research this piece and drew enthusiasm once the topic was presented.

The piece itself was created in 1921 in Germany. It is 12 5/16 by 9 5/8 inches. The medium used is dry point. This piece is also one in a large self portrait series done by Max Beckmann. In the series, he explored many different media, including dry point, lithographs and woodcuts. This series also represents nearly a quarter of his print production and also spanning most of his career. Later on, he would produce work of circus entertainers as well as a variety of themes.

In understanding this artist and the piece itself, it is necessary to understand and research the context, or what was happening in Germany and in the world during this period of time. The most notable event is , of course, World War I. Beckmann worked both before and after the war. In the years leading up to the war, his work evolved into grand compositions of religious and mythical subjects in the tradition of Eugene Delacroix, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrant van Rijn. The war interrupted his work and after serving as a medical volunteer for a year, he suffered a breakdown and was discharged to Frankfurt in 1915 to recuperate. When he began to paint again in earnest in 1917, his style changed radically, assuming a Northern Gothic sensibility couched in a Modern idiom. His forms became more mannered and polished; his colours became more intense, and his rendering of space took on a vaguely Cubist orientation, with figures compressed into torturous settings and angular forms tilting precariously toward the picture plane. His works became a mosaic of contemporary social criticism and religious or mythical themes, and he increasingly used masked or costumed circus characters as allegorical figures, a practice that became a hallmark of his art.
Max Beckmann was also considered to be an artist of the Weimar Republic. Weimar

Republic refers to the years (1919-1933) in German history. Politically and economically, the nation struggled with the terms and reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (1918) that ended World War I, and endured punishing levels of inflation. 1920s Berlin was at the hectic center of the Weimar Culture. The fourteen years of the Weimar were also marked by explosive intellectual productivity. German artists made significant cultural contributions in the fields of literature, art, architecture, music, dance, drama, and the new medium of the motion picture. Political theorist Ernst Bloch described Weimar culture as a Periclean Age. During the era of the Weimar Republic, Germany became a center of intellectual thought at its medieval universities, and most notably social and political theory (especially Marxism) was combined with Freudian
psychoanalysis to form the highly influential discipline of Critical Theory—with its development at the Institute for Social Research (also known as the Frankfurt School) founded at the University of Frankfurt am Main. With the rise of Nazism and the ascension of Adolf Hitler to power in 1933, many German intellectuals and cultural figures fled Germany for Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other parts of the world. Those who remained behind were often arrested, or detained in concentration camps. This is why, in 1947, Beckmann fled to the United States.

It was the war that dramatically changed his view of the world and influenced his art heavily. Max Beckmann himself began creating this work with his anguished scenes of surgery in a World War I hospital and culminated in the relatively large lithographs of “Hell”, his horrific ten print assessment of post-World War I Germany, published in 1919. This includes depictions of the murders of the left-wing political leaders Karl Liednecht and Rosa Luxembourg. After his work in the war, his art changed dramatically into a more skeptical and sometimes pessimistic sense of human capacity, which was expressed by a distortion of form and space. The piece itself was created in 1921, which World War I took place from 1914-1918. In 1919, there was

the Treaty of Versailles in which Germany lost colonies and land to it’s neighbors and had to pay large scale reparations. Due to that, the Weimar Republic came into control, which was marked by high unemployment and rampant inflation. Germany’s inability to pay the reparations to other countries resulted in economic collapse by 1923. By the year 1929, global depression and mass unemployment had taken hold. However, Beckmann had risen out of this depression and by the mid 1920’s had become one of Germany’s foremost modern painters. Beckmann was initially received by his local audience in a positive manner. Unfortunately, the Nazo regime did not appreciate his views towards war and publicizing it on a world wide audience. “He was persecuted by the Nazis in the 1930s but continued to work, painting his celebrated secular triptychs in the late 1930s and the 1940s” (

His work was exemplary of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which was a short lived movement that was distinguished by the rejection of Expressionism and the revival of Realism. Of course part of Beckmann’s strength is that more than any German artist of his generation, he paid keen attention to new developments in Paris and elsewhere, assimilating them into concepts of space, composition and colour indelibly his own. Beckmann’s personal growth is visible in the progress of his expressive self-portraits, this one which shows the artist with narrowed eyes and clamped jaw, confident and intractable. It is also evident in his increasingly powerful and claustrophobic sense of composition in which shapes, as much as people, generate friction and compete for space. And it is clear in the increasing complexity with which he handles the different print techniques, achieving in each one a distinctive richness of texture, variety of line and sharpness of light.
This piece still has much to offer us in the present day as well. Without looking at the date or the artist’s country of birth, we can see the influences of cubism, expressionism and even realism. We can also sense a feeling of tension by the harsh lines, sharp angles and high contrast.

Looking further into the piece and through research, we can see a clear connection to war, depression and even death. We can also see the artist’s attitude in regards to himself by the expression on his face and his body language. “What Beckmann was, was a painter of history but not one who made pictures filled with public personalities or recognizable events. Primal scenes of degradation, yearning and exile were his specialty, complex reckonings with anxiety and grief. In his lifetime Europe would tear itself apart twice in world wars. And once the Nazis got wind of him, they put 10 of his canvases in their infamous show of “degenerate art” in 1937. The day after it opened, he fled Germany with his wife Quappi, first for Amsterdam, then, after the war, for the U.S., where he died of a heart attack at the edge of New York City’s Central Park.”

(Lacayo, Richard). Beckmann’s work is bound to remind viewers what that critic of an earlier age was getting at. This piece would work well in a history class as an inquiry about World War I due to the fact that it tells a story, a history lesson if you will. In accordance with Marxist theory, this piece does “reveal and support the institutions of society”. It tells the story of Nazi Germany after the war, both revealing it to the world and supporting the situation. In addition to the historical implications of this piece, it also still inspires many artists by the innovation involved. I believe that it is just as celebrated in present time as it was eighty six years ago at the time of its creation.

The above information gives a brief insight to what the artist did, what he was thinking at the time of the production, as well as how the world today perceives it and how I personally feel about the piece. These are things to be taken into consideration when deciphering a meaning behind a piece as well as the implications within a class room. The history intertwined within the piece without even knowing the context can be still be felt. A story is being told with simple lines. This is something that I wish my students to grasp and be able to reproduce a story or a scene without an explanation necessary (although still present).

Works Cited
Lacayo, Richard (2003). The German Question. Time South Pacific (Australia/New Zealand edition); 7/28/2003 Issue 29, p65-65, 1p, 2c
(2005). Artist Summary: Max Beckmann. Retrieved 21 September 2007 from
Lesson Objectives
Max Beckmann’s “Self Portrait in Bowler Hat”
1.) Ask students if they know any famous self portraits
2.) Tell them we will be studying a piece from 1921, created in Germany and ask if they know anything about that time period and place.
3.) Give power point presentation on piece and artist analysis, content and context.
4.) Ask how Beckmann portrayed a story in his piece.
5.) Show other pieces that tell a story about a time period or event and ask how they portray that particular theme.
6.) Brainstorm ideas about possible personal pieces individually, with a partner, then as a class.
7.) Work on own self portrait involving a story.
Students will then be presented with a criteria guide as well as a requirement to write a story that correlates with their piece.