Self-Portrait in Tuxedo
Oil on canvas
54 1/2 x 37 3/4 in.
Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Stephan Lackner writes
"Any self-portrait has to be self-centered-this is to be expected from the genre. But the man who confronts us here is frankly egocentric.
"Nothing indicates that he is an artist. He could be an industrialist or a politician; he is obviously successful. He appears to be a man of purpose and hard work, but now he is relaxed. He seems relatively good natured-though it would be unwise to cross him.
"Symmetry here becomes a symbol of security. The face is partitioned into symmetrical patches of light and shadow. Every feature rests in itself Reliability is shown in the perfect equilibrium; the stance is reminiscent of the classical contrapposto of heroic statues. The closed contour proclaims a self-contained human being. The man's left hand is moved over to the middle of the picture; thus, both well-lighted hands together form a counterpoise against the background, which is dark on the left and light on the right-a delicate balancing act. Everything is quietly clarified, distilled into a rational formula. The undiluted contrast of black, white, and brown gives a feeling of clean stylization.
"Another major self-portrait comes to mind, one that emanates a comparable conscious superiority and barely avoids the borderline of arrogance: Albrecht Durer's frontal Self-Portrait of 1500, which depicts the artist with flowing locks. There, too, symmetry symbolized the height of life. It is entirely possible that the date 1500, distinctly displayed on the painting, gave Durer a mystical feeling of being exactly in the middle of his time. The Beckmann we see in the 1927 self-portrait was indeed in the middle of his creative career. In 1905 he had destroyed all his earlier oil paintings to prove to himself that his apprenticeship was over, and he lived and painted until 1950. Therefore, 1927 was the halfway point of Beckmann's journey. The mystique of the symmetry is uncanny.
"Beckmann adopted many disguises in numerous studies of his own person; like Dante, he wanted to know himself per tutte guise. Here he is simply a gentleman. Does he consider this a disguise also, or does the elegant man in tuxedo take himself altogether seriously? Whatever the answer, Beckmann surely thought that life and success would continue in the grand style for quite a while.
"This painting has evoked some violent opposition. The critic Fritz Stahl, in 1928, objected to its troche arrogance: "A Caesarean mask, frowning forehead, tyrant's stare, every inch the great man. These faces have to disappear again from our world if humanism is to be reconstituted." In contrast, Heinrich Simon, the publisher of the Frankfurter Zeitung, wrote in 1930, "that this lonely maverick may become the only personality in European painting who, by his example, will form a style for the future." And Peter Selz, writing in 1964 about this same Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, calls it "one of the great self-portraits in the history of art."