Political Art: Max Beckman


Max Beckman


As part of my investigation for the Mask series, I looked at the work of the Expressionist artist, Max Beckman, with a particular focus on the painting “Carnival”.The painting is a triptych (one of nine painted by the artist).

It has been suggested that the artist uses the motif of carnival to explore deeper themes related to the human condition.(Anderson, 1965:218-225). I was interested in how I might use such an approach to take the mask theme further in future work.


The paintings are at first glance a simple portrayal of three couples in carnival costumes participating in the celebrations of the festival. The paintings are displayed together, with the six large figures filling much of the picture plane, creating strong vertical elements across the three canvases.The artist has introduced diagonal elements to the paintings through the bent arms of the figures and in daggers placed each of the side panels and a musical instrument in the centre panel.

It is only on seeing these daggers that the viewer might sense that all may not be as it seems and that there may be sinister undertones to the scene. The bent arms form a jagged line across the picture plane, adding to the uneasy atmosphere.

In the left panel, the couples are facing each other, an intimate posture. However, the dagger raises questions about their relationship to each other, suggesting a threat, with the possibility that a violent act may follow imminently.

In the centre panel, both figures look straight ahead towards the viewer and the male figure has his arm placed over the female. Again, there is ambiguity about the pose which could be viewed as affectionate but perhaps not?
A small arm clasps her from behind. This appears to come from a separate figure. These gestures seem to suggest control.

In the right hand panel, the female figure sits astride the male, clinging closely with her arms wrapped around him. The couple do not look happy. My first thought would be they are tired after a long evening of celebration and the male is carrying the female home.  However, a sinister figure lurks behind them wielding a large dagger. There is a definite threat looming. The figure is wearing a bird-like carnival mask and appears to be female, wearing a dress and displaying breasts through a slash in the dress.


The artist makes use of strong contrasts of complementary colours, with the strongest colour statement in the centre panel, where the female figure wears a bright green tunic which contrasts vividly with the flashes of bright red on the floor and the panel on the wall in the background. The red of her tunic also contrasts with the harlequin costume of the male figure on the right hand panel. The bird mask on the right hand panel wears a green cloak, contrasting with the red patches on the print of the dress worn by the female figure.

The red splashed throughout the panel suggests blood, and the possible violent intent of the figures holding the daggers.


The painting “ Carnival” was painted in 1920 just after the end of the First World War and may have been a statement on the horrors of the war. Elements such as control, deception and violent intent are suggested by the red splashes in the colour scheme, the daggers, masks worn by the figures. The clinging posture of the figure on the right hand panel suggests fear, and the weighing down of the spirit.

Beckman’s work continued to be a vehicle for political comment throughout his working life.
Max Beckman was one of the German Expressionist artists reviled by the Nazi regime and his works were included in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937 held to display examples of art deplored by the regime as unsuitable.

Later Work

One subsequent work, also a triptych “ the Departure” makes a clear political statement. It was painted in 1932 after the Artist lost his job at the hands of the Nazis. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/78367

The left hand panel of the painting shows a scene of persecution and torture, representing the growing deprivations and suffering endured by many groups under the rise of the Nazis.

The main central panel, showing the departure of migrants by boat, represents the leaving of native shores for a new life. It has been suggested ( MOMA Highlights:p162) that the presence of the child in the female figure’s arms represents the hope for a new generation and the crowned figure the triumph of the spirit over adversary. Beckman has suggested himself that the right hand panel represents trying to navigate a way in the darkness. This is a painting which could provide inspiration for a potential statement on modern war and migration and to the future development of my own work on migrants.


Anderson, E. (1965). Max Beckmann’s Carnival Triptych. Art Journal,24(3), 218-225. doi:10.2307/774695

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 162





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