Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
Self-Portrait with Horn
1938
Oil on canvas
43 1/4 x 39 3/4 in
Collection Dr. and Mrs. Stephan Lackner, Santa Barbara, California

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Stephan Lackner writes:

"In Self-Portrait with Horn, a very lonely man stares out of the canvas. The painting is among the most melancholy, and perhaps the deepest, of Beckmann's many studies of his own persona.

"The man does not look at himself in the mirror, nor at the spectator before the canvas; his gaze follows the resonance of a horn call, which he has just sent out like a message. He seems to listen for a distant echo. But there is no response, only a great silence.

"Here is a man forsaken by his time. No furnishings, no amenities of civilization, just an empty frame remains behind him. His strange, timeless costume seems to combine harlequin and convict associations. The richly colored stripes are a marvel of pure painterly accomplishment, almost reverting to some organic phenomenon of nature. Their rippling rhythm is reminiscent of sound waves; their full, soft color corresponds to the timbre of the horn call. The heavy, clumsy hands are half bound to nature's clay. These simple hands are a far cry from the thin, expressive, nervously articulate hands that the artist used to invent between 1917 and 1923. Most of the male hands that Beckmann painted from the thirties on are graceless but of stupendous vitality; the fact of their being there seems an overwhelming statement concerning the persistence of life.

"The huge face, overshadowed by reticent sadness and foreboding, knows all about the troubles of existence. And yet, the man still listens to the dying horn call of Romanticism, and never gives up expecting the transcendent echo.

"This is a man who has seen through the petty quarrels and the hustle and bustle of everyday existence, and is now searching for the essence of life. Thus, the painting is reduced to bare essentials: the man, his horn, and a golden picture frame surrounding the head. What is the meaning of this square halo? Perhaps it signifies that the man has transcended the picture frame, that the exclusive sphere of art has become too small for him?

"And what about the horn? In German literature and painting, the Waldhorn was a specific symbol of Romanticism. The basic collection of German folk songs undertaken during the Romantic period was called Des Knaben Wunderhorn; many artists, including Gustav Mahler, used the horn for romantic effects. It is doubly touching that a dour, sarcastic man like Beckmann should picture himself with this romantic attribute. The newly exiled artist, cut off from friends and homeland, was evidently immersed in nostalgia.

"Beckmann's persistence in working out a certain idea was phenomenal. In 1909 he had seen the painting Halali by Gustave Courbet, in which a party, after a successful hunt, is being called together by the sound of a hunting horn. Beckmann wrote: "A strangely quiet, concentrated mood pervades the painting. The piqueur becomes a symbolic figure as he blows his triumph out from the picture. Something like renunciation after a beautiful, clear victory emerges." The same mood prevails in Self-Portrait with Horn, painted thirty years later.

"An earlier stage of this work-which has been preserved in a photograph -presents a mysteriously smiling face, apparently enchanted by the horn's melody. Later on the bitterness of the times overcame the artist. With Hitler at the gate there was really nothing to smile about. Thus, we have been deprived of what would have been the only smiling self-portrait from Beckmann's mature years. In 1910 he had portrayed himself grinning over a newspaper; he had just been "panned" by an art critic, and this amused him. His other self-portraits show him earnest, proud, grieving, or cocky, overwhelmed by self-doubts, or cynical, but never again smiling.

"A comparison of the first version with the final result reveals the workings of Beckmann's artistry. He added the red curtain on the right, cutting the horn's bell in half, for the sake of equilibrium. The gesture of his right hand, which originally pointed in the direction of the music, became more reticent. Several circular shapes in the early version evoked thoughts of the harmony of the spheres; these have disappeared, and the picture has grown earthier and more somber. The corners of the mouth now turn down under the weight of sorrow and disappointment; bags have appeared below the eyes, indicating a sudden aging. The whole work has gained in intensity and concentration.

"The echo that this genius listened for, in vain, for so long can now be heard, and it grows even stronger as time passes by."