Max Beckmann on teaching art

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait with a Cigarette, 1923

This is from an interview with Dorothy Seckler in 1950, which was published in 1951. Beckmann died of a heart attacking walking toward Central Park on December 27, 1950.

“Art cannot be taught,” Beckmann said positively. “But,” he added, “The way to art can be taught.”

“Method?” The painter shook his head. “No, I have no method. There is no recipe. What I say and direct is different for every individual student. Every one is a special case.” With typical expressionist contempt for system and rationale, Beckmann seemed to have disposed of the whole question of teaching procedure; nevertheless he responded with ready good humor when asked to describe what actually happens in a first class- meeting. “It’s very simple,” he explained. “To one student I suggest a still life, to another a self-portrait. I advise working from the model for some and there may be a few who are ready to begin more advance compositions…. Of course each student must bring in examples of what he has done the first time and from this I judge.”

Even to favored students, Beckmann spoke very little. His advice was constantly to: “Work a lot… simplify… use color, lots of color… make the painting more personal.”

When Beckmann wanted to make a correction in drawing or composition, and in his classes there were almost the same thing, he would often work directly over the student’s painting. Taking the largest-size brush (he hated small brushes) and dripping it alternately into dirty turpentine and black paint, he would outline a shape in sweeping rhythmic curves. A timid student he would send to “see the paintings of my friend Rousseau.”

“At the beginning,,” Beckmann concluded, “Some students go with the teacher and try to paint in his manner, but later on most will develop their own way.” Asked if imitation included his own cryptic symbolism or if it were ever discussed, the artist waved the idea aside. “Certainly not. No, we do not talk of symbolism at all. I am concerned only with the architecture of the painting; the subject is absolutely personal. Where I can help is in bringing the image to the surface.” Beckmann described with his hand the vertical lattices that are so marked in the structure of his own painting. “There must be an architecture, you understand, not illusion.”

Beckmann’s friend Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy:

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