Max Beckmann

(German, 1884–1950)

Karneval (Carnival)

, 1943
Oil on canvas, 74 7/8 x 41 3/8 in.; 75 x 33 9/16 in.; 74 15/16 x 41 7/16 in.
Purchase, Mark Ranney Memorial Fund, 1946.1


According to diary entries, Max Beckmann created Karneval, his sixth triptych (out of ten extant), while in exile in Amsterdam from Berlin between August 1, 1942, and December 5, 1943. The art dealer Curt Valentin purchased the triptych directly from Max Beckmann on July 16, 1946, and then sold it to the University of Iowa that same year.

The art Beckmann created during this period—termed his "Amsterdam" works—demonstrates an increased focus on the brutality and agony Europe suffered during the first half of the twentieth century. To express his own disillusionment with war-torn Europe, Beckmann differed from many of his contemporaries in that he experimented with abstracted figural forms rather than non-figural forms.

The triptych format has had a religious, Christian connotation since the medieval period, and Beckmann’s first title for this triptych was Adam and Eve. Beckmann used the Christian theme of expulsion from paradise/the fall of man to simulate his own, and others’, forced exile from Germany by Nazi hands. Karneval includes many symbolic references to forced exile, such as the partial text referencing the Eden Hotel, which Beckmann frequented when he lived in Berlin.

To underscore his extreme disillusionment with a war-torn world that had lost its way, Beckmann employed classic German Expressionist approaches in Karneval, including abraded forms akin to woodblock prints, radical spatial compositions, and garish color outlined with black (reminiscent of stained glass). Together, these elements create forces of tension, contests between opposites, simultaneous narratives, and compressed vertigo-inducing spaces for the viewer.

The title Karneval itself is reflected visually in the painting: Beckmann set his masked and costumed figures, some with musical instruments, on a street-like stage reminiscent of an actual Lenten carnival.