The Beginning (1949) by Max Beckmann
Meaning and Interpretation of Expressionist Triptych Painting

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The Beginning (triptych) (1949)

The Beginning (triptych) by Max Beckmann.
One of the great modern paintings of the mid-20th century..


Articles about 20th Century Expressionism


Name: The Beginning (1949)
Artist: Max Beckmann (1884-1950)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Genre: Triptych
Movement/Style: German Expressionism (allegorical)
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Analysis of "The Beginning" (triptych) by Max Beckmann

Best-loved for his boldly painted self-portraits and powerful triptychs, Max Beckmann achieved early financial success with his Biblical art, and was elected to the board of the prestigious Berlin Secession when he was only 26. However, his experiences as a medical volunteer during the First World War, changed his style of painting completely. During the 1920s, he eas associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group, and began producing expressionist portraits and self portraits, which he exhibited widely. In this post-war portrait art and figure painting, he depicted life as a carnival of human folly, using expressionistic brushwork and more intense colours with bold outlines. In addition, from the early 1930s, as a result of his keen interest in medieval painting, he also produced a series of ten allegorical triptych paintings (1932-50) - of which The Beginning was number eight. In 1933 he was dismissed by the Nazis authorities from his teaching position at the Fine Arts Academy in Frankfurt. In 1937, ten of his paintings were included in the Nazi exhibition of "degenerate art", and he was forbidden to practise as an artist. In response, Beckmann fled to Amsterdam. In 1947, he emigrated to the United States, where he died three years later.

The Beginning was inspired by a dream which Beckmann recorded in his diary in April 1946: "I just had an absurd and unpleasant dream in which somehow a Puss-in-Boots played a role that made me mighty ridiculous". He started work on the painting in Amsterdam in October 1946, noting: "already today a draft from 'Puss-in-Boots', becoming quite interesting". In January 1947 he records starting on the side panels of the work, referring to them now as 'L'Enfance' (Childhood), and later on as 'Jeunesse' (Youth).

Beckmann ceased work on the painting soon after, perhaps preoccupied by his impending move to the United States. Only after a year in America does he again mention the triptych in his journal, where in December 1948 he announces: "Interesting, that old new little triptych L'Enfance". In April 1949 he writes of having "cut down The beginning with seemingly marvellous success". This last title was then retained, and the work was pronounced complete on 16 May 1949.

For other modern artists painting in a similar style to Beckmann, see: George Grosz (1893-1959).



The Beginning is perhaps the most autobiographical of Beckmann's major works of modern art, and may be read, as the earlier titles suggest, as an allegory of childhood. The scenes depicted in each of the three panels revolve around a boy who, in the right-hand panel, is in the back row of a class of schoolboys seated before a strict schoolmaster. The boy has made a drawing of a naked woman and is passing it to a fellow student, an act that Beckmann recalls from his own school-days: "I distinguished myself in school most of all by setting up a small picture factory during lessons. The products wandered from hand to hand and mesmerized away many a poor fellow slave's dreary fate for a few minutes."

The boy's artistic activities seem about to be cut short, however, as the scowling glance of the teacher is fixed upon him. That severe punishment may follow is indicated by the fate of the student at the front of the room, who stands face to the wall, his hands raised above his head. The use of sombre browns and blacks, the claustrophobic foreshortening, and the heavily barred grille down the left of the panel add to the air of oppression: this is a place of physical and psychological restraint. Only the presence of a globe and a brightly coloured painting of a mountain landscape implies that there is an alternative to this world. The sculptured head behind the teacher, the harp in the foreground, and the boy's artistic activities suggest the means of escape.

By contrast with the earthy colours of the right panel, the blue and purple in the left panel belong to a mystic plane, from which spectators are excluded by the grid of a window frame. The boy, now crowned, stares into this space. His garlanded female companion, however, fascinated by her own reflection in a mirror, personifies earthly vanity and delusion. Nearby, a burning candle symbolizes the transience of human existence, in the style of Vanitas painting of the 17th-century Dutch School. Beyond the window a fantastic vision appears before the boy king - a host of angelic beings surrounds a blind organ-grinder. In Beckmann's earlier works the organ-grinder symbolizes Fate, playing over and over again the song of life. The bearded old musician may be seen as a lonely visionary, the inevitable end to the young artist's dreams of glory.

The implications of the side panels, the worlds of reality and of the imagination, are brought together in the central panel. Here Beckmann depicts a nursery, in which the boy, mounted on a white rocking-horse and heroically brandishing a toy sword, dominates the composition. Puss-in-Boots, fairy-tale figure of daring, renowned for success over grown-up monsters, hangs disquietingly from the roof. Perhaps the boy is soon to rescue him, but in view of Beckmann's dream it is more likely that the youngster has vanquished the cat, whose swinging paws parallel the outstretched arms of the boy being punished in the adjacent panel. Lurking in the cupboard is the child's next conquest, the menacing clown - another spectre of childhood insecurity.

A voluptuous red-haired woman reclines in the foreground, absent-mindedly blowing bubbles from a clay pipe. Beauty is seen as a fragile image. Beckmann identified this figure as a governess, a role well suited to muse and femme fatale. Next to her an old woman reads a newspaper, indifferent to her surroundings, offering knowledge of the world through experience and learning. The boy's parents, who appear on a ladder behind him, wave disapprovingly, but are powerless to stop their son's leap into adulthood.

Since the 1990s, Beckmann's expressionist paintings have attracted an increasing international following, with retrospectives and exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (1995) and the Samuel R. Guggenheim Museum (1996) in New York, as well as the principal museums of Rome (1996), Madrid (1997), Zurich (1998), Munich (2000), Paris (2002), London (2003), Frankfurt (2006) and Amsterdam (2007).

Articles about 20th Century Expressionism

Expressionism in Art (1890-present)
General guide.

Expressionist Movement (1880s onwards)
Germany, France, Belgium, Europe, America.

Expressionist Painters (c.1880-1950)
Fauves, Die Brucke, Der Blaue Reiter, Ecole de Paris, Rest of Europe.

History of Expressionist Painting (1880-1930)
Origins and development.


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