He is known for the self-portraits he painted throughout his life, their number and intensity rivalled only by Rembrandt and Picasso. Well-read in philosophy and literature, he also contemplated mysticism and theosophy in search of the "Self". As a true painter-thinker, he strove to find the hidden spiritual dimension in his subjects. (Beckmann's 1948 "Letters to a Woman Painter" provides a statement of his approach to art.)
In the Weimar Republic of the Twenties, Beckmann enjoyed great success and official honors. In 1927 he received the Honorary Empire Prize for German Art and the Gold Medal of the City of Düsseldorf; the National Gallery in Berlin acquired his painting The Bark and, in 1928, purchased his Self-Portrait in Tuxedo. In 1925 he was selected to teach a master class at the Städel school of art in Frankfurt. Some of his most famous students included Theo Garve, Leo Maillet and Marie-Louise Von Motesiczky.
His fortunes changed with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, whose dislike of Modern Art quickly led to its suppression by the state. In 1933, the Nazi government bizarrely called Beckmann a "cultural Bolshevik and dismissed him from his teaching position at the Art School in Frankfurt. In 1937 more than 500 of his works were confiscated from German museums, and several of these works were put on display in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. For ten years, Beckmann lived in poverty in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, failing in his desperate attempts to obtain a visa for the US. In 1944 the Germans attempted to draft him into the army, despite the fact that the sixty-year-old artist had suffered a heart attack. The works completed in his Amsterdam studio were even more powerful and intense than the ones of his master years in Frankfurt, and included several large triptychs, which stand as a summation of Beckmann's art.
After the war, Beckmann moved to the United States, and during the last three years of his life, he taught at the art schools of Washington University in St. Louis (with the German-American painter and printmaker Werner Drewes) and the Brooklyn Museum. He suffered from angina pectoris and died after Christmas 1950, struck down by a heart attack in Manhattan.
Many of his late paintings are now displayed in American museums. Max Beckmann, a native of the very heart of Germany, exerted a profound influence on such American painters as Philip Guston and Nathan Oliveira.
From its beginnings in the fin de siècle up to its completion after World War II, Beckmann's work reflects an era of radical changes in both art and history. Many of Max Beckmann‘s paintings express the agonies of Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Some of his imagery refers to the decadent glamor of the Weimar Republic's cabaret culture, but from the Thirties on, his works often contain mythologized references to the brutalities of the Nazis. Beyond these immediate concerns, his subjects and symbols assume a larger meaning, voicing universal themes of terror, redemption, and the mysteries of eternity and fate.
Unlike several of his avant-garde contemporaries, Beckmann rejected non-representational painting; instead, he took up and advanced the tradition of figurative painting. He greatly admired Cezanne, but also Van Gogh, Blake, Rembrandt, Rubens and Northern European artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance such as Bosch, Brueghel and Matthias Grünewald. Encompassing portraiture, landscape, still life, mythology and the fantastic, his work created a very personal but authentic version of modernism, combining this with traditional plasticity. Beckmann reinvented the triptych and expanded this archetype of medieval painting into a looking glass of contemporary humanity.
New York art dealer Richard L Feigen described him as “the greatest artist of the 20th Century in Germany — if not in the world.”
In 1996, Piper, Beckmann's German publisher, released the third and last volume of the artist’s letters, whose wit and vision rank him among the strongest writers of the German tongue. His essays, plays and, above all, his diaries are also unique historical documents. A selection of Beckmann's writings was issued in America in 1996.
In 2003, Stephan Reimertz, Parisian novelist and art historian, published the biography of Max Beckmann. It presents many photos and sources for the first time. The biography reveals Beckmann's contemplations on writers and philosophers such as Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Richard Wagner. The book has not yet been translated into English.