Bold Reflections of Max Beckmann’s Self-Portrait
I have a print of this painting pinned onto my study wall. For a long time I’ve been trying to work out why I like it so much — and why I find myself coming back to it day after day.
The painting is called Self-portrait with Red Scarf and it was made in 1917 by the German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann.
I think you’ll agree, the image swarms with uneasiness. The strange contortions of his arms, those big bulging eyes, and most of all, the way he bites on his bottom lip, suggest that inner torment lives close to the surface. It is an image that captures the nervous dilemma of simply being alive.
What I keep coming back to is the thought that, even with all the anxiety on show, the artist refuses to shrink from the world. I like the way his figure fills the frame, almost squeezed inside it. He is up close, imminent, not shy but deliberately there. Committed to his presence.
In a certain sense the artist is shown in full animation: sat at his easel, brush in hand, painting what appears to be a landscape image.
And notice how he is dressed — with shirt sleeves rolled up, buttons undone at the chest, and finished off with that bright red neck scarf — all of which has more than a pinch of bravado about it.
Beckmann was around 33 years old when he painted this self-portrait. He once said he wanted to paint life’s “grotesque banality”, by which I think he meant the raw truth of day to day existence.
The section of the painting that especially draws me in is the depiction of his left hand. The way his wrist is hooked like that, the way the blue veins stand proud of the skin, is strangely artificial. Why is he holding himself like that?
An explanation for this contorted posture may lie in the fact that Beckmann had recently served…