Excerpt from “Letters to a Woman Painter”
by Max Beckmann
It is necessary for you, you who now draw near to the motley and tempting realm of art, it is very necessary that you also comprehend how close to danger you are. If you devote yourself to the ascetic life, if you renounce all worldly pleasures, all human things, you may, I suppose, attain a certain concentration; but for the same reason you may also dry up. Now, on the other hand, if you plunge headlong into the arms of passion, you may just as easily burn yourself up! Art, love, and passion are very closely related because everything revolves more or less around knowledge and the enjoyment of beauty in one form or another. And intoxication is beautiful, is it not, my friend?
Have you not sometimes been with me in the deep hollow of the champagne glass where red lobsters crawl around and black waiters serve red rumbas which make the blood course through your veins as if to a wild dance? Where white dresses and black silk stockings nestle themselves close to the forms of young gods amidst orchid blossoms and the clatter of tambourines? Have you never thought that in the hellish heat of intoxication amongst princes, harlots, and gangsters there is the glamour of life? Or have not the wide seas on hot nights let you dream that we were glowing sparks on flying fish far above the sea and the stars? Splendid was your mask of black fire in which your long hair was burning – and you believed, at last, at last, that you held the young god in your arms who would deliver you from poverty and ardent desire!
Then came the other thing – the cold fire, the glory. Never again, you said, never again shall my will be a slave to another. Now I want to be alone, alone with myself and my will to power and to glory…And uneasy you walk alone through your palace of ice. Because you still do not want to give up the world of delusion, that little “point” still burns within you – the other one! And for that reason you are an artist, my poor child! And on you go, walking in dreams like myself…You dream of my own self in you, you mirror of my soul…
Max Beckmann (1884 – 1950) was a German painter, sculptor, printmaker, and writer. Although often described as an Expressionist, Beckmann disagreed with Expressionist aims, finding their tendency to abstraction frustrating. Hundreds of his works were confiscated by Hitler in 1937, and several were featured in the Degenerate Art exhibition produced by the Nazis in an attempt to denigrate Modern art. Driven into exile, Beckmann eventually found himself in the U.S. The above passage is excerpted from a speech he gave at Stephens College in 1948 explaining his approach to art.