Artist Dossier: Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann’s death, in 1950, was a poignant end to an art-filled life. He keeled over from a heart attack at the corner of 61st Street and Central Park West in New York, not far from his apartment building. As the artist’s widow famously recalled, he was on his way to see one of his own paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Beckmann, who was born in Leipzig in 1884, served as a medical orderly for Germany in World War I and developed as a painter in the heyday of the early avant-garde in Paris and Berlin. In the 1930s, he was denounced as a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis and was forced into exile. He spent the war in Holland and then moved to the U.S., where he arrived in 1947.

It was a tumultuous life, and Beckmann created strikingly memorable images in his art. Sometimes associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, which focused on realism, but also considered an expressionist, Beckmann ultimately was unique. He pushed his images of mythic figures and starkly outlined faces up against the picture plane, and his use of blocks of color, strongly delineated with thick black lines, makes his works seem carved from wood, in a style reminiscent of the Northern Gothic.

His well-known triptychs, such as Departure (1932–33), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, explore dense, complex allegories that use ancient symbols (and some he invented) to explore the fundamental themes of human existence.

Although Beckmann is considered one of the towering figures of 20th-century art, he has never been a household name, and his works have mostly appealed to a niche market of German and Austrian collectors. In 2001, for example, Ronald Lauder paid $22.5 million, a record for the artist, at Sotheby’s New York for Beckmann’s masterpiece, Self-Portrait with Horn (1938), and promptly displayed it at the Neue Galerie in New York.

But with 17 Beckmanns on view, through Feb. 19, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” Beckmann is ripe for reappraisal.

“He is, for my money, the greatest artist of the century,” said New York dealer Richard Feigen, who bid on Self-Portrait with Horn for Lauder. “But his prices are still considerably below Picasso and Matisse, of whom he is an equal.”

Beckmann’s large paintings routinely sell for more than $1 million, and his self-portraits generally command the highest prices; last year Self-Portrait with Crystal Ball (1936), brought $17 million at Sotheby’s New York.

Despite impressive sales, Feigen believes that Beckmann “remains a highly undervalued artist, largely because of the scarcity of his work.” This is particularly true of his drawings.

“One of the things that has prevented the market from developing in a more robust way is lack of availability of really strong, unique works on paper,” said Jane Kallir, co-director of Galerie St. Etienne in New York. Her family has shaped the market for Beckmann’s work for more than 80 years: Kallir’s grandfather knew the artist in Vienna and published his prints in the 1920s.

Beckmann prints do, however, occasionally become available. “There are really strong examples in the $8,000-to-$20,000 range,” said Kallir. Prices for his most iconic works—primarily the self-portraits and ones with allegorical themes—and those of impressive quality or provenance can shoot up to $100,000. Feigen recently offered two unique prints, The Tall Man (1921), a drypoint on vellum altered with pencil by the artist, and Pierrot and Mask (1920), a lithograph with watercolor, for $48,000 and $250,000, respectively.

Kallir points to Beckmann’s intellectual content as another factor that has kept his prices from soaring. “He’s a complicated artist, referencing a lot of classical imagery in his work,” she said. “So his market is full of anomalies and full of opportunities.”

Beckmann’s style is vigorous and expressionistic, keeping away fans of gentle landscapes or cozy still-lifes. According to David Norman, co-director for Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, these traits prevented Beckmann’s market from exploding in the 1980s, when Impressionism was dominant. But now, he adds, it may be precisely his strong style that’s behind a recent increase in Beckmann prices (of his top 10 auction performances, all but one occurred after 2000).

“These days, guys in their 40s and 50s who made their fortunes in the late ’90s are a more assertive breed,” said Norman. “I think they are attracted to these aggressive pictures.”

At auction, paintings come up far more often than drawings—at a rate of two or so works a year, said Norman. “There’s a strong market in the middle range, a half-million to $2 million to $3 million.” One example is Reclining Nude Sharply Foreshortened (1948), which sold at the May 2004 Sotheby’s New York Impressionist and modern sale for $2.5 million.

In London, Sotheby’s and Christie’s generally have one German-specialty sale each winter, and attendance is recommended for all Beckmann collectors. Not that buyers can expect to breeze right in and pick one up. As Kallir puts it, “You don’t shop for Beckmann. You keep your eyes open.”

She advises collectors to scour the Art Basel fair each June. She has spotted choice Beckmanns there offered by German dealers, such as Haas & Fuchs from Berlin and Galerie Thomas of Munich.

Feigen cautions collectors not to believe everything they’ve heard. Conventional wisdom may prize Beckmann’s self-portraits, but, as Feigen notes, “the allegorical paintings have just not come up. So who knows what they’ll bring?”

Most of these works are already in museums, and the few in private hands could be extremely valuable should they ever appear on the market. If and when one goes through the roof, it will be just another dramatic moment in Beckmann’s career.