Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
Party in Paris
1931 (reworked 1947)
Oil on canvas
43 x 69 in.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

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Stephan Lackner writes:

"The people assembled in this room were, no doubt, invited to enjoy a private concert, but they are not paying the slightest attention to it. In the upper middle portion of the picture, a tenor-his proud stance identifies him as such-is singing his heart out. He sends his melodies over the heads of the audience, and we can see and almost hear his exertion. The pianist, seated a little farther to the left melts into the background. Nobody acknowledges the performance. Perhaps the artist wanted to poke fun at a society that has cultural pretenses but ignores true art.

"There is not only satire, but also admiration, in the way Beckmann portrays this gathering of Parisian high society. The participants are individualized to the extreme: this is the stock-in-trade of caricaturists from Leonardo to Daumier and Grosz. The more grotesque a face appears, the more unforgettable it becomes. The ladies' noses encompass all possible forms-the ski-jump, the hawk's-beak, the almost Greek straight-and yet three of these women could be called beautiful. Even the ugliest guests are painted with a marvelously incisive brush.

"When Renaissance or Impressionist artists portrayed a group of people, they generally gave them a vectorial coherence: faces were directed toward the spectator standing before the canvas, toward a common focus-as in Rembrandt's Night Watch-or toward a sports event or other spectacle. Beckmann, however, shows a fragmented society, a gathering of uncommitted individuals. This gives the group an air of slight decadence. Each character is not only unique, but convinced of his own uniqueness. These people experience no genuine communication; each is wrapped up in his or her own significance. Beckmann's sharp, critical eye has registered that at a party of this sort exactly as many heads are turned away from each other as there are faces pretending to notice others. And not a single face is turned toward the poor singer in the background!

"The citizens Beckmann presents are obviously important, intelligent, polished, wealthy, and interesting in their own way. Counteracting the satirical intent is the flawless elegance of their dinner jackets and haute couture. The male custom of dressing in black dinner jacket, stiff white shirt, and black tie had become quasi-universal in those years. Films of the period show it to be practically the uniform of "good society" after dusk. Yet it is surprising how rarely the tuxedo found its way into major works of art. Despite the fact that its simple black-and-white contrast lent itself easily to treatment in the woodcut medium, and that woodcuts, in turn, frequently dealt with social criticism at the time, Beckmann may be the only painter who depicted the tuxedo in a straightforward manner. In this way the black-and-white male attire served him in Self-Portrait in Tuxedo of 1927 and in The Loge of 1928. Later on evening clothes acquired sinister connotations: the singing angels in Death (1938) and the Minotaur in Blindman's Buff (1945) make these garments appear very macabre. The dinner jackets in Party seem to evoke just a trace of awe."