Painting Without Restrictions

A Diversity of Styles

Wolfgang Beltracchi “Eden”, 2017. Signature: Max Beckmann from 1947-48 reflecting on the events of 1918-19

20th Century

A Diversity of Styles – Max Beckmann Paints Political Atrocities

In contrast to all previous eras and movements, the 20th century was not characterized by one common artistic style, but rather by a diversity of styles. Placed side by side, contemporaries such as Max Beckmann, Francis Bacon and Niki de Saint Phalle represent the development from an era-encompassing defined style to artists with a variety of visual languages that are fully independent of one another. Although their styles are so diverse, however, they are all modern masters. The artist from this period with the highest profile today is Max Ernst.

Almost 100 years after the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, Wolfgang Beltracchi addresses the topic using the artistic voice of Max Beckmann from the 1940s. The work “Eden” portrays the torture of the German Communist Party leader as sexualized and – as was typical of Beckmann’s later works – full of symbolism.

Max Beckmann was obsessed with painting. He wanted to use it to capture “the mystery of being”. “I would crawl through all the sewers in the world in order to paint”, he wrote to his wife in 1915. With his own “dreadful, vital sensuousness” he penetrated the visible world and, by artistic means, revealed the truths lying behind it.


The First World War and the horrors he experienced first-hand as a medical orderly left him disillusioned. What happened to compassion or altruism, where was God? From that point on, catastrophes and failure became an important part of his oeuvre.

The painter rejected abstraction, which many of his contemporaries devoted themselves to. His works are bursting with expressiveness. He painted using a new, radical figurative method: angular, cold and with clear contours. His strict composition lends the paintings something inescapable – fitting to the authoritarian powers of his time. He used black lines as grids for his compositions, and they later appear in the foreground as the outlines typical of Beckman’s work, giving his figures their harshness and intensity. Over the course of time the painter, who is often classified as an expressionist, began to combine an increasing number of painting methods in one work. As result, thin glazes, which make use of the structure of the canvas as a design element, are next to areas thick with paint – some matt, some glossy, depending upon use of turpentine.

Five Facts About Painting in the 20th Century

A large pallet of colors, modern materials and the discovery that art doesn’t only work on canvas – the 20th century offered artists new ways and possibilities of evolving artistically. Being radically different and embracing unconventionality becomes the signature feature of work by artists such as Jason Pollock, Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol.

The First World War led to artistic scrutinization of violence and the misery that followed. This was reflected in works by Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix and Käthe Kollwitz through their use of realism. However, other artists like Paul Klee and Hans Arp distinctly distanced themselves from realistic portrayals. By the end of the Second World War, ever more artists began to pursue a new approach to art.

The first photo was taken in 1826. The first motion picture was projected onto a big screen in 1895. Feeling that painting was nearing its demise, artists began to experiment with the new forms of media. Film and photography, however, turn out to have the surprising effect of inspiring new ideas in painting.

Stylistic flexibility becomes noticeable not only in differences between artists, but also within their own respective oeuvres. Max Beckmann, born in 1884, begins as an impressionist and joins the Berlin Secession for a short time. He then moves on to develop his own figurative style, which he implements time and again in various ways. As a result, some of his works can also be categorized as expressionist and part of the New Objectivity movement.

In the 20th century, the world becomes more connected, there are more and more influences from all over the globe. A modern artist is familiar with art from Africa, the Americas and Asia. The influences are apparent, for example, in works by Wassiliy Kandinsky and Franz Marc, who are inspired by African masks. The contemporary Matisse, on the other hand, travels among others to Tahiti and experiments with new motifs. Stylistically, the 20th century is on a quest.

Käthe Kollwitz „Eine deutsche Mutter“ Lithografie 1924. (1)

Franz Marc „Drei Katzen“ 1913. (2)

Wassily Kandinsky „Upward (Empor)“ 1929.(3)


Image sources:

1: Käthe Kollwitz „Eine deutsche Mutter“ Lithografie 1924. © bpk
2: Franz Marc „Drei Katzen“ 1913. © bpk / Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf / Walter Klein
3: Wassily Kandinsky „Upward (Empor)“ 1929. © bpk / Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / David Heald
a: Lucas Cranach the Elder „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
b: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
c: Gustav Klimt „Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” 1907.  © John Baran / Alamy Stock Foto.
d: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © Stock Foto
e: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
f: Detail from William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
g: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer im Nebelmeer, 1818. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
h: Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 © Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo