Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
The Dream
1921
Oil on canvas
71 3/4 x 35 7/8 in.
St. Louis Art Museum

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Stephan Lackner writes:

"On November 7, 1920, Beckmann wrote to J. B. Neumann, his art dealer and friend: "I think you'll be glad to know that The Dream has progressed nicely and begins to give me pleasure. With me that means a lot, since most of the time I'm in a state of deep anger. Which I'll probably be in again tomorrow. But today The Dream is so clear before my eyes as if I were asleep."

"What a curious, yet highly artistic paradox: clear as if I were asleep. Many artists have pictured dreams as nebulous, fleeting fancies, but Beckmann's Dream is razor-sharp. It remains a clear picture of unclearness.

"Each of the five characters is enslaved by a different illusion; each is trapped within his own shell of inhibitions and incapacities. The three male inhabitants of the cage are cripples. The drunken maid at the bottom is wrapped in a sexual fantasy and uses a cello as a substitute lover. Her face is flushed with excitement; her mouth smiles in coarse delight, but her eyes remain tightly closed to reality or reason. A yellow trickle at the bottom left corner shows what shabby relief fate has allotted her. We have to think back to Titian's Danae and her golden stream of delight to appreciate the full measure of Beckmann's irony. But we really must look to Hieronymus Bosch in order to find similarly gross ideograms for the vengeance which reality inflicts on dreamers who disregard its laws.

"War cripples, in those first postwar years, were a common sight and not at all a figment of the painter's imagination. However, Beckmann has added his own brand of ludicrous mummery to make the futility of patriotic sacrifice even more apparent. The legless cripple pushing himself forward on crutches wears an incongruously gay harlequin costume with polka dots that makes a mockery of his reduced state. A man in prison garb is climbing a ladder; however, without hands this seems a tricky undertaking, and in a moment he will reach the ceiling which will cut off his imaginary escape route. The young, innocent girl in the center has just arrived from the country and has already lost her way in the heartless big city. She sits helplessly on her trunk; her only companion is Punch, a grinning, soulless puppet; her watery eyes stare vacantly into an alien world. A blind beggar with hurdy-gurdy and silly toy trumpet completes the weird chamber concert, together with the cello and the mandolin. He hopes for alms, but there is nobody who can spare a coin. A card on his chest proclaims: "Thank God for the light in your eyes, and don't forget the poor blind man"-implying that God has probably forgotten him.

"Forgotten, forsaken, caged in by fate and their own almost idiotic illusions-no common purpose unites this group of twentieth-century people. Only the strong formal scheme of their creator holds them together in a tight composition. The heads are equidistant, and the stiff limbs complement each other to form a cabalistic figure. The color patches also keep their distance, each color being repeated at regular intervals. What a frighteningly "conformist" dream this is!

"Germany, through war, defeat, revolution, and inflation, was being reduced to a new minimum, and so was Beckmann's background, in a personal and in an artistic sense. In The Dream, his claustrophobic compression reaches its utmost density. There is no breathing space, no horizon. His stage has the atmosphere of a pressure cooker. Through this high compression Beckmann wished to force a new catharsis.

"The window, which relieved the density of The Night, has now been replaced by an empty picture frame. This hieroglyph will remain part of Beckmann's vocabulary from now on, as will the stringed instruments with their ornamentally inverted scrolls. The fish with its slightly phallic connotation will reappear in many later works. And the organ grinder will again and again accompany Beckmann's Lebenslied, his song of life, with his fulsome and enigmatically sweet three-penny melody."