Max Beckmann was one of the many German artists in a particularly talented generation whose mental health was shattered by the outbreak of the First World War. He joined the medical corps as a hospital orderly and served for some time at a field dressing station. Like George Grosz his experiences precipitated a severe mental breakdown and he was invalided out of the army in 1915.
Before the war he had been fêted as a great talent. He had been influenced by Impressionism, Symbolism and by Cézanne, rejecting the move towards abstraction spearheaded by his German contemporaries in the Blau Reiter group. After his encounter with the horrors of war his style changed dramatically. He was still concerned to depict objects and people in a way which conformed recognisably with reality but now he began to cram his subjects into claustrophobic spaces where normal perspectival laws break down, heightening the inherent tension and alienation of his subject matter.
In Carnival, three figures find themselves in a chaotic and perplexing space rather like the ‘crooked house’ fairground attractions where everything is designed to challenge your sense of balance. Various objects litter the scene, presumably part of Beckmann’s complex web of symbolism; in particular, the gramophone horn seems to have been of particular significance as it appears in many of his pictures during this period.
The three figures are dressed in the costume of the Commedia dell’arte. The woman dressed as Columbine is a portrait of Fridel Battenburg, the wife of a close friend and fellow artist who had looked after Beckmann during and after his breakdown. Harlequin is the art dealer I. B. Neumann who had supported his post-war shift to a new style and the clown, lying on the floor with a trumpet held by his feet, is thought to be a self portrait hidden behind the monkey mask. It has been suggested that the clown symbolises a world gone mad. Certainly Fastnacht (the German title of the picture), facilitated a sort of madness; it was the climax of the carnival season, traditionally celebrated with unrestrained revelry featuring fancy dress and street processions.
Beckmann’s was essentially a pessimistic vision. He said that ‘the sole justification for our existence as artists … is to confront people with the image of their destiny’. Weighed down by his experience of war and his disappointment at the political chaos that ensued in Germany after 1918, Beckmann foresaw that Europe’s destiny would again descend into turmoil and disorder.
1919 Pierre Bonnard: The Bowl of Milk, London, Tate Modern
1920 George Grosz: Republican Automata New York, Museum of Modern Art
1920 Stanley Spencer: Christ Carrying the Cross London, Tate Britain