Did you know that ....artist Max Beckmann was inspired by Indian Theosophical ideas


The engagement of German modern artists with Indian art and art theories was more pronounced than generally known. Artists of the German expressionist group Die Brücke, founded by Erich Heckel with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and other artists in 1905, were quite familiar with it. Heckel had seen reproduction of Ajanta wall-paintings in a library in Dresden, done by John Griffith of the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai and his students. Heckel introduced Kirchner to these, who was instantly fascinated by them. Kirchner remarked in an essay: “These works made me almost helpless with delight. I thought, I would never be able to achieve this unprecedented uniqueness of representation, this monumental tranquility of form. All my endeavours seemed hollow and unsteady to me. I copied a lot from the pictures, mainly to arrive at my own style.”

It is quite apparent that his painting Five Bathers at the Lake of 1911 was inspired by Ajanta wall paintings. Intensive discussions about form, content and aesthetics of Indian art were prevalent among the artists' circles in the beginning of the 20th century in Germany, and every artist worth his name was part of it. Though Max Beckmann did not belong to any of the artists' groups for more than a fleeting presence, and preferred to trod his own distinct artistic way, he nevertheless was well aware of these debates and deeply inspired by Indian religious and philosophical ideas.

Not only philosophically inclined thinkers, but also many artists and musicians in Europe and the USA, such as Piet Mondrian, Max Beckmann, Arnold Schönberg, Marsden Hartley, Wassily Kandinski, Jackson Pollock, and Francesco Clemente were influenced by its ideas, some also as members of the Theosophical Society, which was founded by Helena Blavatski in New York in 1875. She later on moved its headquarters to Adyar in Madras. Establishing a universal brotherhood of humanity, studying comparative religions and philosophy, and exploring the laws of nature and the human mind were its main objectives.

Max Beckmann is undoubtedly one of the most recognised German artists of the first half of the 20th century. His oeuvre underwent a number of transformations, which could be attributed to personal tragedies and the horrifying experiences of both the World Wars. Born in Leipzig in 1884 as third child of a miller, he moved to Braunschweig after his father's death in 1894. Already early in life he was fascinated by fairy tales and legends from distant countries and cultures, and attempted to illustrate these. He studied art at Weimar.

His journeys to Paris influenced him to paint landscapes in an impressionistic style. After a nervous break-down during World War I, his depictions of tragedy and misery became frequent in his paintings. In 1925 he became a professor at the Städel art academy in Frankfurt, but quit in 1933 when some of his work was described as “degenerate art”. Max Beckmann left Germany, and moved to Amsterdam and then Paris. Taking up an assignment at Washington University Art School, he went to the USA in 1947, but died soon after, in 1950 due to heart failure on his way to the Metropolitan Museum, where he wanted to see his painting “Self portrait in a blue Jacket”.

In his exile in Amsterdam, Max Beckmann was deeply engaged in the study of Indian religions and philosophies, especially the Theosophical ideas. Commenting on these he pondered: “What I want to show in my work is the idea hidden behind so-called reality. I am looking for the bridge, which leads from the Visible into the Invisible, as the famous cabbalist once said: If you want to comprehend the Invisible you have to advance as far as possible into the Visible.”

In this background it might not be too strange to find one painting by Max Beckmann depicting an Indian woman, entitled Inderin (Tänzerin), painted in Amsterdam in 1943. Indian girls who were performing during the War in dancing clubs and variétés of Amsterdam were apparently the inspiration for this painting. In his diary entries he refers to these: on 3 November 1943 mentioning his going to see them and on 16 January 1944 wishing: “Oh, I wish I could see the typical Indian dancing girls again”. This intriguing painting depicts a reclining woman, leaning against a bolster, against the backdrop of prominent orange-coloured drapery of curtains and a potted plant. Her head is covered with a white veil which allows streaks of her black hair to peep out. Her delicate, light face with large, black eyes and a central bindi on her forehead appears almost fragile and is supported by her vertical arm, which is in total contrast: oversized, frightfully marked with a dark, almost black streak. The figure gives the impression as if the woman is resting after a tiring performance. The large bead necklace, the bindi, deep red bangles and the irregularly chequered dress allude to her Indianness.

Note: I gratefully acknowledge the help by art-historian Christina Degethof, Berlin. As source material I referred to a number of publications and essays on Kirchner and Beckmann, especially the catalogue German Expressionist Paintings (New Delhi, 1982), and the book by Hyang-Sook Kim Die Frauendarstellung im Werk von Erst Ludwig Kirchner (Marburg, 2002).

Author: Dr. Jutta Jain-Neubauer

© German Embassy New Delhi

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