Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
Still Life with Candles and Mirror
1930
Oil on canvas
28 5/8 x 55 1/4 in.
Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

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Stephan Lackner writes:

"Several candles, some burning, some fallen over and extinguished: this was one of Beckmann's favorite allegorical subjects. An earlier treatment, very similar to the one illustrated here, was acquired in 1929 by R.W. Valentiner for The Detroit Institute of Arts_the very first Beckmann canvas to enter an American museum. Two candles, one flaming upright and one fallen, had already appeared in the foreground of The Night of 1918-19. These animated objects recur in his triptychs of 1941 and 1945 and in Still Life with Orchid of 1947. Sometimes their warning-how easily a light or a life may be snuffed out-is combined with the poignancy and futility of a wake, as in the bitter drypoint Mourning the Dead of 1924, where the smoldering candles no longer profit the deceased.

"There is a simple, rather touching old German song, "Freut euch des Lebens, weil noch das Lampchen gluhe" (Enjoy life while the little lamp is still glowing). Hardly the stuff that still lifes are made of, and yet Beckmann manages to express this sentiment with his waxen cylinders.

"A strange melancholy radiates from these poor, ineffectual candles nodding to their mirror images. They do not really illuminate the scene; the light in the picture does not emanate from them; there is clear daylight all around; their efforts and sacrifices are quite superfluous. They do not even produce shadows. No wonder that one of them has given up the struggle and lain down to rest.

"Those who search for influences in art history may point out a certain rapprochement between this painting and the works of the School of Paris, especially those of Georges Braque. The exquisite harmony of the few select colors in this still life derives from Beckmann's experience during his sojourns in Paris. The beautifully swinging curves of curtain, vase, and candlesticks owe their stylishness to the same source. Even the use of a printed word in the center of the canvas may have its origin with the Parisian painters. But whereas the Cubists frequently employed the names of alcoholic beverages, Beckmann's inscriptions usually had mystical overtones. In this case, the book standing upside down on the table bears the title EWIGKEIT (eternity). The irony is clear; the flickering lights are consuming their own bodies in order to shed some parting rays on the eternal word. And yet Beckmann's "messages from the cosmos," as he called his inscriptions, are never didactic. Sometimes they only increase the enigma of his fantasies.

"The word Ewigkeit recurs in several of Beckmann's works. A watercolor of 1936 shows a dressed-up, hairy monkey writing EWICHKEIT (Berlin dialect) on a poster: a truly sarcastic comment on one of our favorite illusions. However, the 1930 still life is not as bitter. Though a mild sadness is induced in the beholder, the message of these candles is not a hopeless one. Even a tiny, flickering light can be multiplied through the mirror of art."