CAMBRIDGE — The bright confetti colors in Max Beckmann’s paintings are always encroached upon by black. In fact, Beckmann would often begin a work by covering the canvas with black paint to conjure the void; he thought of everything he proceeded to paint as an object placed between himself and that void.
And the void was always close. “The Actors,” a masterly triptych that hangs in the Harvard Art Museums, not far from Beckmann’s celebrated “Self-portrait in Tuxedo,” emerged from an especially dark time.
It was painted in Amsterdam during a socially and psychologically isolated period that extended from May 1941 to July 1942. Beckmann had been living there in exile with his young wife, Mathilde (or “Quappi”), since 1937. That was the year his work was included in Hitler’s infamous Entartete Kunst — “Degenerate Art” — exhibition, a perverse and deeply traumatic attempt by the failed-painter-turned-Fuhrer to demonize art by the avant-garde and others of whom he didn’t approve. Beckmann’s art had been held up for special ridicule. He had earlier been stripped of his teaching position and was later described by Hitler as “a servant of Jews.”
If Hitler was a failed painter, he was also a bad actor, in the profoundest sense. Bad acting on Europe’s political stage — all the wrong reasons, all the wrong rhetoric — had created the unfolding catastrophe. And of course, by 1941, “trouble” did not begin to describe the reality of the situation.
In Amsterdam, it was as if Beckmann wanted to create a richer drama, more ambivalent and artistic, with deeper, more private motives and meanings than the befouled and hollowed out political sphere could tolerate. He did so in a series of triptychs he worked on in Amsterdam, in a large tobacco factory that he used as a studio.
Beckmann wanted to revive the form of the triptych as a medium for moral meditation. He adopted the hieratic scale of religious triptychs. Thus, important figures were large and central. Ancillary figures were small and pushed to the periphery.
“The Actors” is laden with symbol. We see a king on a stage — apparently a self-portrait — committing suicide with a dagger to his heart. But it’s not clear: Is this really happening? Is it a performance? Or is it merely a rehearsal?
Similar questions befog the other “actors,” the lead ones central but strangely opaque, the smaller ones involved in miscellaneous activities, from fighting to reading newspapers.
Although the attempt can be rewarding, “solving” the mystery is not perhaps the point. Beckmann’s painting communicates, at one and the same time, the godlike control of a master puppeteer and the spiritual confusion, the urgent press, of a panicking crowd.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.